Late entrant into Denver school board race motivated by her experience as an English learner

The final candidate to enter the Denver school board race said she was inspired to run because she can relate to the one in three Denver students learning English as a second language.

Natela Manuntseva came to Colorado in 2000 as a refugee from Uzbekistan when she was 12 years old. Her family moved to Glendale, a tiny suburb abutting the southeast part of the city. At first, she attended a Denver middle school until a boundary change meant she was reassigned to the neighboring Cherry Creek School District.

“English is my fourth language,” Manuntseva said. “I can relate to children and families and what they’re going through. A lot of challenges come up.”

Manuntseva faces two opponents in her bid for an at-large seat on the Denver school board. Both have close ties to Denver Public Schools. Tay Anderson is a Denver graduate who works as a restorative practices coordinator at North High School. Alexis Menocal Harrigan is a former district employee whose oldest child is a kindergartener in Denver.

Manuntseva is new to education politics, and her connection to Denver Public Schools is more distant. Her day job is in marketing for a national kombucha company. But she also volunteers as a Russian interpreter, as well as a court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system, and works part-time as a modeling and acting teacher.

The majority of her modeling students are teenagers. Talking to them, she said it’s clear that “their educational level is not on par with basic knowledge and skills.”

“They’re terrified of speaking with people,” Manuntseva said.

Manuntseva entered the race just a few weeks before the deadline. She said her goal as a board member would be “to create better schools for all.” A great school, she said, is one where students are motivated, teachers are supported, parents are welcome, and classrooms are safe.

As for how to create great schools, Manuntseva didn’t offer many specifics. She said she’d start by taking a close look at what is happening in the district and why. She used a metaphor to compare the process to what she would do if her car broke down.

“I can’t figure it out without opening up the hood,” she said.

Manuntseva was too late in declaring her candidacy to be considered for any major endorsements. The organizations that are expected to spend the most money in the race — the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Stand for Children, and Students for Education Reform — have already announced which candidates they’re backing.

Stances on hot-button issues such as charter schools and school closure have traditionally divided candidates for Denver’s school board. Asked about charter schools, Manuntseva said that improving traditional public schools would make charters a non-issue.

Parents, she said, “want what’s best for their children. … They’d rather have little Jimmy walk across the street and go to school instead of adding a massive commute.” Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and many don’t offer transportation.

One of the more controversial decisions facing the school board is what to do about schools struggling with low student test scores. Manuntseva had a quick answer: Ask the teachers.

“It’s important to sit down with the teachers and ask them, ‘Why are their students struggling and what are the resources they need?’” she said. “It’s not a single issue.”

Among the questions she said the district should ask: Is the student receiving breakfast at home? Dinner? If it’s an immigrant family, are they able to understand the homework? When she was a child, Manuntseva said she attended an after-school tutoring program at a local library. But then the library closed and the program disappeared along with it, she said.

“That was a volunteer-based program, and so many amazing people came in and helped the students,” Manuntseva said. She said she suspects many people today are willing to act as mentors to students but don’t know how to start.

Unlike other candidates who picketed alongside teachers or sat in on salary contract negotiations, Manuntseva was not involved in last February’s Denver teacher strike. She said it’s her understanding that the strike was not just about teacher pay, but also about teachers feeling like they’re not respected and don’t have the resources to do their jobs.

“If we don’t address the issues today, I would not be able to blame the teachers if they would do it again,” Manuntseva said. “I really sympathize with the teachers.”

The school board election is Nov. 5. Nine candidates are running for three open seats on the seven-member board. Manuntseva said she is running at-large because she lives in school board District 3, where the seat is not up for election. In addition to the at-large seat, seats representing District 1 in southeast Denver and District 5 in northwest Denver are up for grabs.

None of the races will feature an incumbent. The at-large seat is currently held by Happy Haynes, who is barred by term limits from running again. So is Anne Rowe, who holds the District 1 seat. Lisa Flores, who holds the District 5 seat, is not running for re-election.