Some Denver mayoral candidates want more city voice in public schools

A white building with columns stands against a bright blue sky. An American flag is visible.

Several candidates in the crowded and competitive Denver mayoral race want the mayor’s office to have a louder voice or even a formal role in running the state’s largest school district.  

Seventeen mayoral candidates are on the ballot, and no front-runner has emerged. It’s the first wide-open mayoral race in Denver in 12 years, and it follows both interpersonal conflicts on the school board and rising youth violence, including a fatal shooting outside East High, which has prompted candidates to weigh in on returning police to schools.

The state of Denver Public Schools — and the question of public confidence in the officials who run it — have put education on the agenda, even as crime, homelessness, and the cost of housing dominate the mayoral candidate debates.

Some candidates have criticized the school board’s behavior, with Mike Johnston saying in a survey that the board has made Denver Public Schools “more of a public embarrassment than a source of pride.” Most recently the head of Gary Community Ventures, Johnston has broad political connections, as well as ties to education reform. As a state senator, he authored Colorado’s teacher evaluation law and the READ Act. 

Others, including state Sen. Chris Hansen and finance expert and social entrepreneur Trinidad Rodriguez, have called for the city to be more involved in district decision-making. 

Their ideas stop short of mayoral control of Denver schools. Rodriguez, who is the son of former Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, is proposing to give the mayor the authority to appoint additional members of the school board. 

Hansen, who sponsored legislation to support semi-autonomous groups of schools, favors having a single mayoral appointee serve as a non-voting member. In a survey from the group Educate Denver, Hansen said a mayoral appointee would enable “the city to have a hand in the hiring and accountability of the superintendent to serve the city and students well.”

State law says the Denver school board can only have seven members who must be elected by voters, not appointed. Changing that would require action by state lawmakers, DPS General Counsel Aaron Thompson said.

Former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President Kelly Brough has said she’d designate a mayoral cabinet member to work with the district, but she said she’s open to other ways of having an impact, including mayoral appointees on the school board.

“A city is only as good as its school district, and ours needs help,” Brough said in a video interview with El Comercio de Colorado. “Whether you look at the disparities and achievement gaps based on race, which are some of the largest in the nation, or you look at just the functioning of our board, we can do better in both regards — and we have to.”

School board responds to criticisms

Other candidates — including Lisa Calderón, community activist Terrance Roberts, GreenLatinos state director Ean Tafoya, and Al Gardner, an IT executive with Salud Family Health — have said the mayor should not interfere in the elected school board.

“The mayor and city departments will develop partnership programs with DPS, providing resources and support [to] positive initiatives,” Calderón, who is a college professor and head of an organization that helps Democratic women run for office, said in response to a question on a Chalkbeat survey.

“The mayor shouldn’t interfere with an independently elected school board.”

Calderón placed third in the 2019 Denver mayor’s race and served as chief of staff for progressive City Council Member Candi CdeBaca.

Asked to respond to the candidates’ criticisms, the school board issued a joint statement

“Rather than respond to this negativity,” it says, “we have kept our heads down and focused on continuing to do the vital work of supporting all of our students and community members.” 

The board statement lists several accomplishments, including a rising graduation rate, higher salaries for teachers and a $20 minimum wage for paraprofessionals, and a new sustainability policy.

“As a duly elected member of the Denver school board, I‘m looking for a partner in the mayor’s office,” board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said in an interview. “I’m not looking for someone who is trying to be adversarial.”

Member Scott Baldermann issued his own statement pointing to the politics behind the criticism.

“Some mayoral candidates align with education reform proponents that introduced market-driven ideologies into DPS the past two decades,” Baldermann said. 

“Those conservative policies led to resource inequities, union busting, privatization, and an obsession with standardized test scores. I can understand why they would not support certain policies implemented by the current board.”

But Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, said he doesn’t hear much debate about actual education policy, in contrast to past years. 

“I’ve heard some candidates talk about safety officers in school and how crime and homelessness even intersects with some of the issues in our schools, but straight-ahead policy — like what DPS should be doing — I don’t hear much about,” he said.

Education is still in the mix

The Denver mayoral race is wide open since Mayor Michael Hancock, who’s served in that role for 12 years, can’t run again due to term limits. 

Voters will have until April 4 to return their ballots or vote in person. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote — a likely outcome — the city will hold a runoff election between the top two contenders on June 6. 

Education arguably played an even bigger role when Hancock was elected from a crowded field in 2011, as the school district was in the midst of controversial reforms. Hancock ran a television ad about driving his son 18 miles from the family’s home in far northeast Denver to East High because their local school was “failing.”

Education is still in the mix this year, said longtime political analyst Eric Sondermann, but it’s been dwarfed by two pressing problems: rising crime and a lack of affordable housing. 

The role education is playing, Sondermann said, is that it “is one more contributing factor for the very downcast attitude that most voters have about the city at the moment. … The state of DPS is not the number one contributor to that, but it is on the list.”

In a 9 News/Metropolitan State University of Denver poll, 46% of respondents ranked education a top issue, just below crime, homelessness, and housing.

Conflicts among Denver school board members and tense debates at public meetings were common last year, despite the board being composed entirely of candidates backed by the teachers union and opposed to many previous reform policies. The district also faces real challenges with unpopular solutions. Enrollment is declining, and the school board just voted to close three schools. More school closures could be coming next year.

The district also hasn’t solved longstanding inequities, including a yawning test score gap between white students and Black and Latino students. Denver’s gap is the biggest in Colorado.

Ideas for city and schools to work together

Mayoral candidates have repeatedly referenced the test score gap in forums and questionnaires. Most of their ideas for addressing it focus on how to help students outside of school by providing more after-school and summer programs and paid apprenticeships with city departments, in addition to ensuring families have stable housing and safe neighborhoods.

“DPS has their own elected officials and they have their own billion dollar budget,” Roberts,  a community activist who was once a gang member, said at a debate hosted by two education groups, Ednium and Transform Education Now. “But you know what the city of Denver can do? Make sure we attack the cycle of poverty in this city for Black and brown youth.” 

Other candidates have proposed ideas to help the district save money so it can invest those dollars back into schools. Hansen, whose two sons attend DPS, has proposed that the city and district team up to electrify their bus fleets and buildings.

“This could save both entities tens of millions of dollars per year, and that would free up more funds to improve services and increase teacher pay,” he wrote in Chalkbeat’s questionnaire.

Brough, whose two daughters attended DPS, floated the idea that the city parks and recreation department could maintain DPS athletic and recreation facilities in return for community access.

Johnston, who previously worked as a teacher and principal and whose children attend DPS, has proposed increasing city funding for school mental health clinics. 

Several candidates have also suggested building affordable housing for teachers. They include Brough, Tafoya, Tattered Cover bookstore owner Kwame Spearman, and state Rep. Leslie Herod.

“It is extremely important that we have more diverse housing stock so young people can become first-time home buyers and build generational wealth so they can get on their way,” Herod said at a debate held by CBS 4. “We do that by … using Denver’s land — land owned by Denver, DPS, and RTD — to build diverse housing across the city and county of Denver.”

Some candidates support police in schools

The mayoral candidates have also weighed in on how to curb youth gun violence and stop shootings like the one that killed a 16-year-old East High School student, Luis Garcia, who died earlier this month after being shot outside the school in mid-February.

At a debate hosted by 9News, six candidates — Johnston, Brough, Hansen, Spearman, Rodriguez, and City Councilor Debbie Ortega — raised their hands to signal they’d support bringing back school resource officers to Denver schools, as long as Denver schools agreed. The school board voted in 2020 to remove school resource officers.

At a debate hosted by PBS 12, Ortega said some East High students asked the city council to return police to schools. School resource officers were jointly funded by the city and DPS. 

“This is where school board, city council, mayor, and superintendent need to come together and listen to community, listen to our students, our teachers, so we are addressing these issues how they want to see them addressed in their school environment,” Ortega said.

Other candidates, including Tafoya and Calderón, pointed to solutions other than police.

“It’s more important than ever that we provide peer support and mentorship, extracurricular activities, job training, and mental health support,” Tafoya wrote in response to a Chalkbeat questionnaire. “When our youth have hope, our entire community is stable.”

Calderón mentioned increasing the number of school social workers and counselors trained in de-escalation techniques, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and crisis intervention.

Most mayoral candidates have said they will get involved with Denver Public Schools by endorsing candidates for school board, which Hancock has done in the past. The next school board election is in November. Three of the seven seats will be up for grabs.

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

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