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In a year of rising gun violence in and around Denver schools, and persistent allegations of dysfunction on the school board, Denver voters signaled Tuesday that they want change by electing three new board members.
In the citywide at-large race, former East High School Principal John Youngquist beat Tattered Cover bookstores co-owner Kwame Spearman by a wide margin. Youngquist will replace the board’s most high-profile member, Vice President Auon’tai Anderson.
Two incumbents, Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsay, lost their seats. Former KIPP charter school network CEO Kimberlee Sia bested Baldermann for the board seat representing southeast Denver’s District 1. In northwest Denver’s District 5, longtime DPS volunteer and Latina advocate Marlene De La Rosa defeated Lindsay.
“I’m feeling like there is a lot of support for the message that we need experience and people close to the community and people who know schools and districts,” Youngquist said at a joint election watch party with De La Rosa Tuesday night.
Taking the microphone at the party, De La Rosa promised to listen “to all sides.”
“I am not a reformer,” De La Rosa said. “I am not a union [candidate]. I am not a particular ideology, but I am the ideology that we need to support students.”
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest district, with more than 89,000 students. The next board will face several challenges, including how to deal with declining enrollment and how to address school safety concerns after several shootings in and around DPS high schools.
In DPS election politics, the teachers union is typically on one side, while groups supportive of charter schools and education reform are on the other side. That was true in this election, too.
The candidates who won — Youngquist, Sia, and De La Rosa — were backed by Denver Families Action, the political arm of a group called Denver Families for Public Schools whose board is made up of local charter school leaders. The losing candidates — Spearman, Baldermann, and Lindsay — were backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers union.
For the past four years, board members backed by the union have held a majority of seats. Tuesday’s election won’t change that because the other four members on the seven-person board were backed by the union and will still hold the majority.
But the election of three new members is likely to shake up the interpersonal and political dynamics on the board. The winners are all supportive of keeping police in schools and, to varying degrees, allowing schools to have more academic and programmatic autonomy and encouraging families to choose the school they deem best.
The current board has restricted principal autonomy and been less friendly to charter schools.
This election has been expensive, with candidates and outside groups spending nearly $1.9 million as of last week, according to reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
The biggest spender has been an independent expenditure committee called Better Leaders, Stronger Schools, which spent more than $1.3 million on digital ads, mailers, and even TV ads to support Youngquist, Sia, and De La Rosa. The pro-charter committee outspent the teachers union by 4 ½ to 1 in the lead up to the election.
The new board members are set to be sworn in on Nov. 28.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.