Denver school board election 2023: Who’s running and what’s at stake in the at-large race

Headshots of two men, side by side.
Kwame Spearman, left, and John Youngquist, right, are running for an at-large seat on the Denver school board. (Courtesy images of Kwame Spearman and John Youngquist)

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One candidate is a longtime educator who supporters say knows Denver Public Schools inside and out and will be ready to make changes on day one. The other is a business leader who grew up in a family of educators and who backers say will bring fresh ideas to the district. 

That’s the choice voters face for an at-large seat on the Denver school board.

John Youngquist, 57, was a teacher, principal, and school district administrator for 35 years, with much of that time in Denver. He taught or led at four different DPS elementary and high schools, including two stints as the principal of East High School.

Youngquist’s two daughters are students at East, and he is a graduate of Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School. He now works with a youth-focused organization called GRASP, which stands for Gang Rescue and Support Project.

Kwame Spearman, 39, is co-owner of the storied yet financially troubled Tattered Cover bookstores. His mother is a longtime DPS educator, and Spearman graduated from East High. 

Spearman worked in the private sector, including at Bain & Company, before moving back to Denver in 2020 to run the Tattered Cover. He ran for Denver mayor earlier this year but dropped out before Election Day. He stepped down as CEO of Tattered Cover before running for school board.

Two other candidates are also on the ballot for the at-large seat, which represents the entire city.

Brittni Johnson hasn’t campaigned much due to illness and did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. Paul Ballenger dropped out of the race in September but will still appear on the ballot. Votes for Ballenger won’t count.

Three of the seven Denver school board seats are up for grabs Nov. 7. The winner in the at-large race will replace board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, who is not running for re-election.

The current board members were backed by the teachers union, but they’ve split on whether police belong in schools and how much autonomy principals should have. They’ve also struggled at times to get along. The election won’t change the balance of power on the board, but new members will change the interpersonal dynamic and potentially the political one as well. 

The school board hires and evaluates the superintendent, sets policy, and votes on controversial issues, such as whether to open new schools or close existing ones. The board voted this year to close three schools with low enrollment, a decision it will likely face again as the number of children living in Denver continues to decrease.

Where the candidates stand on the issues

The at-large candidates have emphasized different issues on the campaign trail. Spearman has talked about building affordable housing for educators on DPS-owned land. Youngquist has said he wants to triple the number of student health clinics inside schools.

Spearman also said he’d like to ask Denver voters to raise taxes to pay for student transportation. Youngquist said DPS should create a public, online dashboard with data on student attendance, safety, and academics.

Youngquist and Spearman both want more mental health support for students and good pay for teachers. They both value school choice

And they both want police officers known as school resources officers, or SROs, in DPS schools right now — but Spearman has pledged to remove SROs by the end of his first term. 

“Most of the time an SRO is in a school, they’re not doing what we think of as police activity,” Spearman said in an interview. “They’re literally just sitting.”

He said he understands why SROs are in schools right now, following a fatal shooting outside East High and a shooting inside the school this year — “people are on edge, and we have to respect and understand that” — but he said it is objectively “a clear waste of resources.” 

The key to removing SROs is to provide separate alternative schools, with smaller classes and more mental health support, for students with behavior issues, Spearman said.

“The students most likely to make us think we need SROs shouldn’t be in those environments,” he said of big high schools like East. Spearman said he’d like to replace SROs with community officers, though he hasn’t defined what that would look like.

Youngquist agrees that some students would be better served in alternative schools, and he said he’s seen those options dwindle in DPS over time.

“For me, as a principal, what I need are options when I have a student who has demonstrated violent behaviors,” Youngquist said in an interview. “The district has taken away all the options and not provided consult. The district has essentially said, ‘Good luck.’”

As principal of East High in 2020, he opposed the previous board’s decision to get rid of SROs — and he supported the board’s recent decision to bring them back after the March shooting inside East. After the shooting, DPS hired Youngquist as a consultant to interview high school principals and teachers about safety; all said they wanted SROs to return.

“Over time, we need to ensure we develop an understanding of how [SROs] best fit in our schools and where it is that we’re gaining value from them,” Youngquist said at a recent debate.

Who has endorsed them

Spearman is endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers union. Progressive former Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón also endorsed him.

Youngquist is endorsed by Denver Mayor Mike Johnston and by Denver Families Action, the political arm of an organization called Denver Families for Public Schools, formed in 2021 with the backing of several local charter school networks. 

Charters are funded with public dollars but run by independent nonprofit boards, not by DPS. Supporters say charter schools’ autonomy allows them to be innovative. Critics say charters “privatize” public education and siphon students from traditional schools. 

For many years, pro-reform Denver school board members encouraged new charters to open in DPS, hopeful they would boost academic achievement. Union-backed board members took power in 2019 and stopped that trajectory by rejecting new charters and even closing one for low performance. Declining enrollment has led many charters to close voluntarily and made it extremely challenging to open new schools. 

Spearman has criticized Youngquist for accepting the endorsement of Denver Families Action, which he said at a recent debate is “funded by two people, Reed Hastings and John Arnold” who “are committed to the privatization of our schools.”

Hastings is the co-founder of Netflix and Arnold is a former Enron executive. Both are on the board of The City Fund, a national organization in favor of charter schools and school autonomy. Denver Families for Public Schools gets money — $1.75 million in the last fiscal year — from The City Fund, according to federal tax records.

“The biggest thing that separates me from John is that the educational community has decided to support me,” Spearman said in an interview. 

Youngquist has pointed out that he spent his career working primarily with traditional schools, not charter schools. Neither candidate has called for closing charter schools, and both have said they support allowing families to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs. 

“We can’t get into the traditional fights between reform and neighborhood schools,” Youngquist said at a recent debate. “We’ve been there before. It hasn’t served our children well…It’s time to come together, sit at the table, [and] design the DPS that our students need.”

Both candidates sat for endorsement interviews with Denver Families Action and the union. Youngquist also took a Denver Families candidate training called Lead 101. He said he did the training to learn what a campaign was like before he decided to run.

Endorsements often come with money. Pro-reform organizations have deeper pockets than the teachers union and their spending is often more opaque.

An independent expenditure committee associated with Denver Families Action has been spending big in the last month on digital advertising and a flurry of mailers, including an attack ad that Spearman decried as racist. The committee also spent $250,000 on TV ads — a first in Denver school board races.

What supporters say

In endorsing Spearman, the Denver teachers union noted that he’s a DPS graduate who comes from a long line of educators. In an interview, union President Rob Gould said Spearman’s advocacy for teacher housing stood out among the candidates, as did his outreach to teachers. 

“He met with a variety of individuals to find out: What do educators need? What’s the current status?” Gould said. “What we found is that he was working hard to understand.”

He said Spearman’s approach “is very juxtaposed” with other candidates, whom he declined to name, who act like “they already know the answers.” 

Former Denver school board President Nate Easley endorsed Spearman early in the race, before Youngquist jumped in. Easley was also endorsed by the teachers union in his race, but ended up voting with the pro-reform members on the board. Easley said he found Spearman to be a mature, independent thinker who was raised by a strong DPS educator. 

Easley said he also likes that Spearman has been a CEO, which to him means Spearman will be innovative. Spearman bought Tattered Cover as part of an investment group when the company was already on rocky financial footing and worked to revive it. 

But just this month, after he had stepped down as CEO, the company filed for bankruptcy and is trying to restructure. As CEO, Spearman also faced accusations of workplace bullying and ageism. In an interview, he said, “When you’re an actual leader, you know leadership is hard.”

Easley said his endorsement of Spearman is not a rebuke of Youngquist.

“I think both of them are grown ups,” Easley said. “I like the idea of a DPS graduate whose mom taught in the district and could be in his ear.”

In endorsing Youngquist, Denver Families Action cited his experience as a DPS educator and parent. CEO Clarence Burton said the organization was looking for “the most credible candidates who can speak to a background in education … not just the values they’d bring to the board but can say, ‘We’ve been showing up and doing that work, not just for years but for decades.’”

Educators, parents, and DPS graduates helped interview the candidates for the Denver Families Action endorsement, Burton said, but the final decision was made by the organization’s staff and board chair.

Happy Haynes, another former school board president, also endorsed Youngquist. Haynes typically voted with the pro-reform members in her time on the board.

“As an educator, they don’t come better,” she said of Youngquist.

Spearman has criticized Youngquist for the yawning gaps in test scores between white students, who score high, and Black and Latino students, who score lower. Haynes said she admires Youngquist’s efforts to close those gaps. She cited an effort at East to enroll all freshmen into honors courses and provide extra academic support to those who needed it.

In 2022, the last year Youngquist was at East, the number of white 11th graders who met expectations in literacy on the SAT was 47 percentage points higher than the number of Black 11th graders who met expectations. That gap was a little worse than the gap at Northfield High, the city’s second-largest high school behind East, and a little better than the gap at third-largest South High.

For more about the candidates, read our profiles here:

Kwame Spearman

John Youngquist

Watch Spearman and Youngquist debate here.

And read — in their own words — how they answered six questions about DPS here.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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