Denver school board election 2023: Who’s running and what’s at stake in the District 5 race

Portraits of Denver Public Schools board of education candidates from left, Charmaine Lindsay, Marlene de la Rosa and Adams Slutzker. (Courtesy images of Charmaine Lindsay, Marlene De La Rosa and Adam Slutzker)

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All three candidates vying to represent northwest Denver’s District 5 on the school board are or were Denver Public Schools parents. But their life experiences, careers, and community ties set them apart, as do their stances on topics such as police in schools and school autonomy.

Charmaine Lindsay, 57, is the incumbent in the race, having been appointed to the seat in June 2022 to fill a vacancy. Her son and stepchildren graduated from DPS, and her grandchildren are current DPS students, including two grandsons who live with her. Lindsay is a family law attorney who works out of her home and represents many clients for free.

Marlene De La Rosa, 59, is one of two challengers for the seat — and the one with the most endorsements and funding. De La Rosa’s children are DPS graduates and she was a very involved volunteer, both at the school and district level, when they were growing up. She’s also a prominent Latina community advocate, and recently retired from a career as an immigration court specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Adam Slutzker, 39, is the father of three kids who are in fourth grade, first grade, and preschool at Columbian Elementary, a district-run school in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Slutzker worked as an elementary school teacher in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools before his oldest child was born. He now works part-time as a real estate agent, contractor, and carpenter.

The winner would represent northwest Denver, a historically Latino part of the city that has seen significant gentrification and demographic change. 

Three of the seven Denver school board seats are up for grabs Nov. 7. 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 academics, school closures

DPS student test scores fell during the pandemic, but are now rebounding. However, yawning gaps remain between the test scores of white students and those of Black and Latino students.

All three candidates agree that DPS needs to better serve the Black and Latino students who make up the majority in the district. But they have different takes on how to approach it. 

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Both Lindsay and Slutzker have said DPS relies too much on standardized test scores to tell whether students are at grade level and should consider other measures. Slutzker has suggested asking parents and school staff how students are doing, while Lindsay has said students’ grades in class should be considered.

“If a college student’s achievement is measured by a passing grade in a class, then why shouldn’t the same be true for primary students?” she wrote in Chalkbeat’s questionnaire.

De La Rosa, meanwhile, has said the board should set high academic goals — as high as 90% of students in kindergarten through third grade scoring at grade level on tests — and then direct the superintendent to reach them. Last spring, 58% of DPS students in kindergarten through third grade were reading at grade level, according to tests given per the state’s READ Act.

“We really, really need to focus on early literacy for all of our students,” De La Rosa said at a debate.

Declining enrollment is a big issue in northwest Denver. Higher housing prices have pushed many families out of the city, and there is far more capacity in the region’s schools than there are children to fill the seats.

Lindsay voted in favor this year of closing three small schools, including Fairview Elementary in District 5. She wrote in a Chalkbeat questionnaire that “low enrollment should not be the major criteria in closing any schools,” but she has also defended her Fairview vote by saying there would not have been enough students to open a kindergarten classroom there this fall.

De La Rosa has criticized Lindsay’s vote on Fairview. At a recent debate, she said DPS did not spend enough time in that community talking to families, many of whom live in subsidized housing, about the enrollment projections and preparing them for the transition. 

“That affected one of our most disadvantaged populations in our city, and I think that they suffered very tremendously in that decision,” De La Rosa said.

De La Rosa acknowledges some schools may need to close, but she said at a debate that DPS needs “to look at making sure we are working with the communities that would be affected with a sufficient amount of time — at least one school year.” The board voted in March to close Fairview in June and send the students to nearby Cheltenham Elementary this fall.

The school Slutzker’s children attend, Columbian Elementary, was also on the school closure list before Superintendent Alex Marrero pared down the list from 10 schools to three following pushback from the board and community members. The near-closure is what motivated Slutzker to run for school board, he said.

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Slutzker said he too felt the recent process was unfair, but he realizes some closures may be necessary. 

“I believe we need to look at each situation under a microscope to determine the best path forward,” he wrote in Chalkbeat’s questionnaire. “Closing a school strictly based on low enrollment should not be on the table, but there will be times when schools may have to close due to financial realities.” 

Denver schools are funded per student.

Where the candidates stand on school safety

As a board member, Lindsay participated in a closed-door meeting where the board decided to bring back school resource officers, or SROs, the day after a March shooting at East High School. A judge later ruled the meeting violated the open meetings act and ordered the recording of the meeting released after Chalkbeat and other media organizations sued. 

Lindsay said at a recent candidate debate that she “led the charge in bringing back” the SROs. Another board member, Scott Baldermann, drafted a memo after the shooting to temporarily bring back SROs, but it is true that Lindsay advocated for their return.

The recording of the meeting, released by the board months later, shows Lindsay didn’t get bogged down in wonky procedural debates or interpersonal spats like other board members did. Typical of her approach on the board, she didn’t speak much. But when she did, it was to argue for the return of SROs. 

“How many instances [are there] where some kid is being bullied or threatened by another kid or somebody has a gun and they go tell an SRO officer because they trust this person?” she said during the closed-door meeting.

However, Lindsay has also been criticized for how talked about the need for police in schools, including when she said SROs were needed to stop “minority kids who are likely to carry guns.”

Lindsay voted a few months later to make SROs permanent, but she has noted that officers are stationed at only 13 of the district’s 200 schools, the city is paying for them, and DPS is monitoring to make sure students aren’t getting ticketed or arrested for low-level offenses like marijuana possession.

De La Rosa said she agrees with the decision to bring back SROs. But she has emphasized the need for monitoring to ensure officers aren’t over-policing students of color, as happened in the past, and the need for DPS to provide robust mental health support to students.

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De La Rosa has also criticized Lindsay for taking part in that closed-door meeting, writing in a Chalkbeat questionnaire that the board’s “decision to hold a critical safety meeting behind the veil of Executive Session” was “simply wrong” and led to “less trust in our schools.”

Slutzker is the only candidate who disagrees with the SRO decision. But he said that as long as the city is paying for the officers, and DPS is monitoring to make sure SROs are not getting involved in routine student discipline, he’s willing to give them a chance. 

“I don’t personally believe that SROs make our schools a safer place,” Slutzker said at a recent debate. “The unfortunate reality is if somebody wants to harm our children in our schools in America, they are going to be able to harm our children in our schools.”

Who has endorsed them

In DPS politics — and especially in school board elections — the Denver teachers union is often on one side, and groups supportive of charter schools are on the other.

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. 

Lindsay is endorsed by the teachers union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

De La Rosa 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. 

Slutzker has not received any major endorsements.

Endorsements often come with money. 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 some attack ads. The committee also spent $250,000 on TV ads — a first in Denver school board races.

For many years, the Denver school board encouraged new charters to open in DPS, hopeful it 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. Meanwhile, declining enrollment has led many charters to close voluntarily.

De La Rosa has said she’d like the board to go in a different direction. She said she believes in giving schools autonomy — which for charter schools and district-run innovation schools means, to varying degrees, freedom from certain state laws, district rules, and teachers union contract provisions — “to help students catch up academically” after the pandemic.

She’s also vigorously defended school choice, which is enshrined in state law and allows students to apply to attend any school they want. “It is important that we do have a portfolio of schools,” De La Rosa said at a recent debate. “Not every school meets every family’s needs. Myself, I did exercise choice in choosing different high schools where my students attended.”

Slutzker has been most critical of school choice and charter schools. He has said that choice, especially as used by wealthier white families, exacerbates racial segregation in schools, and charter schools contribute to declining enrollment in traditional district-run schools. 

Lindsay has also offered some criticism of charter schools, but it has been more muted. She said in Chalkbeat’s questionnaire that the board “has an obligation to support our neighborhood schools and make sure they have the resources to meet the needs of students.” Neighborhood schools is how the union and others refer to traditional district-run schools.

At a debate, Lindsay also advocated for lowering the class sizes in district-run schools “to try to make the neighborhood schools more attractive and more competitive.”

For more about the candidates, read our profiles here:

Marlene De La Rosa

Charmaine Lindsay

Adam Slutzker

Watch the candidates 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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