Kwame Spearman says he’s running for Denver school board after short bid for mayor

A man stands in a bookstore.
Kwame Spearman stands inside the Tattered Cover’s Colfax Avenue location in January. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

After dropping out of Denver’s mayoral race two months ago, Kwame Spearman announced Monday that he is now running for an at-large seat on the Denver school board.

Spearman, 39, was until recently the CEO of the Denver-based independent bookstore chain Tattered Cover, of which he is still part owner. He is also a graduate of Denver’s East High School. His mother is a longtime educator in the system, and Spearman serves on the board of the Denver Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the district, though he said he’ll step away from that appointment during the campaign.

Spearman will have two opponents for the seat, which represents the entire city: John Youngquist, the former principal of East High and a parent of two East students, and Brittni Johnson, a DPS parent and doctoral student. Another candidate, Paul Ballenger, dropped out of the race in late September.

School board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, who currently holds that seat, is not seeking re-election.

The election is set for Nov. 7. Three of the seven Denver school board seats are up for grabs. There’s a lot at stake, including how the largest district in the state will deal with declining enrollment and respond to safety concerns after shootings in and around schools.

The election also has the potential to change the dynamics of the board. Power struggles among some members have eroded confidence in the board.

Spearman said he’s running for school board because DPS is “not headed in the right direction.” The board spends too much time infighting and not enough time talking about academic outcomes for students, school safety, and “the mental health quagmire,” he said.

“My belief is that your neighborhood deserves great schools, and foundational to that is representatives from the school board starting and ending every conversation with a focus on student outcomes and academic excellence,” Spearman said.

The community deserves a board member who is going to spend their time listening “rather than tweeting during district meetings or fighting against other board members,” he said.

Spearman shied away from calling himself a reformer but said that school choice has worked. School choice is a key tenet of the education reform philosophy that lets families choose the schools they think best fit their kids’ needs. Board members need to stop focusing on whether a school is district-run or charter, he said, and focus on whether it’s great.

“We can’t get rid of that,” Spearman said of school choice. “That’s what made Denver Public Schools in its heyday so successful — is that parents were finally given the opportunity to figure out the best type of environment for their student.”

Tattered Cover’s flagship store is located across the street from East High, and Spearman is a non-parent member of the Parents - Safety Advocacy Group, a group formed to push for change in the wake of a March shooting inside the school.

After the shooting, the school board suspended a policy banning police from schools and allowed 14 officers to be stationed at 13 campuses, including two at East. If elected, Spearman said he’d support allowing each school to decide whether they want an officer on campus. 

But he said it’s not feasible to let all 200 DPS schools come up with their own plan. He said the board should “entrust principals with the ability to make the decision around [school resource officers] and give them guidance on how to make that decision and options to choose from.”

Spearman dropped out of a crowded field of 17 candidates running for Denver mayor in March, just a few weeks before the election. He said he got into the mayoral race late, which is what prompted him to enter the school board race early. His late entry didn’t allow him to build alliances with community groups, he said, which he hopes to do this time around.

As for which groups he’ll seek out, Spearman named both reform groups and the Denver teachers union, which have historically been on opposite sides in school board elections.

“My concern is we’re not focusing on the right outcomes, and you’re seeing a deterioration of the district because of it,” he said. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated after the ballot was finalized with the names of all candidates running for the at-large seat. It was also updated to reflect that Auon’tai Anderson is not seeking re-election and that former candidate Paul Ballenger dropped out of the race.

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

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