Denver voters just sent the school board a message. Will they hear it?

A man with white hair and a grey suit jacket with khaki pants, celebrates after winning an election in a large crowd indoors.
John Youngquist celebrates on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, after winning an election to be a Denver Public Schools board member. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

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It’s clear from the ousting of two incumbents on the Denver school board that voters are mad.

Mad that a student with a previous weapons charge was allowed to enroll at East High School, and that he brought a gun to school in March and shot two deans.

Mad that staff at several schools across Denver, including high-performing schools where the city’s power brokers send their children, were being asked to pat students down for weapons. Mad that after a middle school principal spoke out about it, he was fired.

And mad at a school board whose members snipe at each other on social media and in print, who held a key meeting behind closed doors, and who repeatedly say decisions about Denver Public Schools — the nitty-gritty stuff like bus schedules — are not up to them.

Three seats on the seven-member Denver school board were up for election Tuesday, and challengers handily defeated two incumbents. In the third race, which didn’t feature an incumbent, voters chose the candidate who was aligned with the challengers.

But if it’s clear that anger and dissatisfaction drove the result, what’s less clear is whether that result was a rebuke of the individual incumbents, or of DPS as a whole — and if it’s the latter, how the sitting board members and superintendent will respond to a clear call for change.

“We have to show the public that we can become a fully functioning board that they would like to see,” board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said in an interview.

The incumbents’ records on school safety

The two incumbents on the ballot, Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsay, largely steered clear of the sniping and infighting that earned the Denver school board a bad reputation.

Of the seven board members, Baldermann and Lindsay pushed the hardest to bring school resource officers, or SROs, back to schools after the East shooting. Lindsay, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, wasn’t even on the board in 2020 when SROs were removed, a change that many blamed for the increase in school violence.

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And Baldermann was the sole “no” vote on firing Kurt Dennis, the popular middle school principal who spoke out about safety policies.

Yet Steve Katsaros, an East High parent who started a group with a large Facebook presence called Parents - Safety Advocacy Group, said the incumbents’ individual records didn’t matter.

“We’re supposed to look at the board as a whole,” Katsaros said in an interview. “While [Baldermann and Lindsay] might have made some smart decisions around SROs, in totality, they’re part of a septic organization and a board that needs such a hard reset.”

Katsaros said the group worked hard over the last six months to keep the media’s attention focused on what was wrong in DPS, especially with regard to safety.

“DPS kept doing dumb things like getting rid of Kurt Dennis, and a lot more violent things,” including a non-fatal stabbing at George Washington High School last week, he said.

“How could you live in Denver and not know that DPS is a dumpster fire?” Katsaros said.

Another parent group, called Resign DPS Board, pushed a similar message, even running anti-incumbent Google ads that are now the subject of a campaign finance review.

Heather Lamm, a founder of Resign DPS Board, said that while she agrees voters were dissatisfied with the board as a whole, it’s not fair to say voters didn’t consider Baldermann and Lindsay’s records. Nor is it fair, she said, to imply they weren’t part of the dysfunction.

“Even if they’re quiet and they voted for the SROs, that was a little too little too late,” Lamm said. “A lot of people really took up the message that we started saying early on — that being on this board and not speaking up against the dysfunction means you’re complicit.”

Baldermann said in an interview that he should have seen the writing on the wall.

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“Just looking back, it all makes sense,” he said. “I was kind of naive to even think I was going to win. … It was one crisis or distraction after another.”

Group backing winners sees ‘mandate’ for change

The three candidates who won — John Youngquist, Marlene De La Rosa, and Kimberlee Sia — were endorsed by Denver Families Action, which is the political arm of a group called Denver Families for Public Schools, whose board is made up of charter school leaders.

As recently as 2017, the school board consisted entirely of members supportive of education reform and charter schools. That fall, two members backed by the teachers union — which generally opposes education reform — won election. By 2021, the Denver school board consisted entirely of members backed by the teachers union. The current board has been less friendly to charter schools and more lenient toward low-performing district-run schools.

Now candidates backed by education reform supporters have a foothold on the board again.

Denver Families Action spent $1.3 million and counting to support its candidates, and much of the funding came from pro-reform sources and donors. But Denver Families CEO Clarence Burton said this election wasn’t about “the education wars” of the past.

The candidates Denver Families backed, Burton said in an interview, “don’t have a common ideological thread through them. They were candidates that represented this value … that every public school in Denver, whether traditional, innovation, or charter, plays an important role in ensuring we have the quality options we need to serve every family well.”

Burton said he sees the decisive wins as not only a celebration but a mandate.

“One of the challenges and frankly, I think, a mandate that these new board members have is whether they deliver on that promise of a unifying vision for the district,” he said.

The losing candidates — Baldermann, Lindsay, and Kwame Spearman — were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. In an interview, union President Rob Gould pointed to Denver Families’ outsized spending as a big reason the incumbents lost.

But union-backed candidates have beat big reform money before, including in 2019 and 2021. Gould acknowledged that there were other factors at play this year, including the “constant bombardment” of messages about DPS being unsafe and “the frustration that a lot of people felt with the current board,” who were all previously endorsed by the union.

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“What’s at the bottom is the reform groups, and they’re seeing that disruption that’s going on, and then I think they’re tagging it to all of the members of the board,” Gould said.

“It’s just unfortunate that there were casualties,” he said of Baldermann and Lindsay.

‘The board needs to do a better job’

Whereas many parents were supportive of the union after a 2019 strike that led to higher teacher wages, Katsaros and others said they didn’t trust the union on safety issues.

“They endorsed nine of the last 10 [Denver school board members] and everybody has seen the district fall to hell,” Katsaros said. “They appear to be focused on just financial outcomes for the teachers and anti-reformer movements. What they need to learn is we don’t care if our kids are educated at charter or reform or innovation or traditional schools. We don’t even understand all that stuff. … We want our kids to be in healthy environments.”

Gould disagrees that the union doesn’t care about safety. Two days after the East High shooting, the union organized a gun control rally at the State Capitol so big that DPS canceled school, he said. It also supported the return of SROs, and its members are helping to revise the district’s discipline matrix, which some parents have criticized as too lenient.

“I’m not out advertising that on Facebook,” Gould said. “We’re actually doing the work.”

But Lamm said the changes aren’t happening fast enough. She said the superintendent and board’s focus this year on reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions doesn’t make sense at a time when more students are bringing weapons to school.

When Baldermann ran in 2019, he said he and other candidates were constantly asked how they would improve DPS for students of color and those living in poverty. This year, the questions from the public were about why DPS doesn’t send students with behavior issues to alternative learning environments instead of big high schools like East.

“In 2019, it was all about equity,” he said. “This year it was like, ‘Whoa, not too much equity.’”

Carrie Olson, who has been on the board since 2017 and still has another two years left of her second term, said she sees this election as a call for change. But while she’s hopeful board members will get along better, she said she’s not sure what that change will look like.

“The board needs to do a better job,” she said in an interview. Then she hesitated to finish her sentence. “Maybe even just putting a period there.”

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

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