Flurry of activity in DPS board election

There’s been a flurry of activity this week in the Denver Public Schools board election.

Mike Johnson

Longtime school finance lawyer Mike Johnson Wednesday officially launched his campaign to fill the central Denver seat now held by term-limited Jeannie Kaplan.

“I finally decided I could organize my life to make this work and that is was too important not to do it,” Johnson said. “The issues in central Denver are in a lot of ways keeping up what we’re doing right now. I think we’ve had incredible success in schools in central Denver. I think people are excited about sending their kids to the schools.”

However, Johnson said he believes more needs to be done to ensure that all families have the means to attend the schools they choose. To that end, he said he supports expansion of transportation systems similar to the Success Express shuttle system in Far Northeast Denver.

Johnson, who is the legal counsel for the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which has provided $1.1 billion to construct and renovate 170 schools in Colorado,  also said the district could do a better job of educating people about how the choice system works.

Johnson puts himself firmly in the camp with the board majority who support Superintendent Tom Boasberg and a raft of reforms in the district, including a portfolio approach to new schools in which the district opens its arms to new school ideas from anyone who can come up with a solid program that meets district needs.

So far, he said he has been endorsed by longtime education advocate Anna Jo Haynes, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, former DPS board member Les Woodward, environmental lawyer and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s wife Susan Daggett and former U.S. Congressman David Skaggs.

“I think Tom Boasberg is doing a great job. I think the school district is headed in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t think it’s perfect, and there are things I’ll disagree with… from time to time.”

O’Brien also pondering run for DPS board

Also in this camp is former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, now head of Get Smart Schools, who said she is considering running for the at-large seat now held by board President Mary Seawell. Seawell shocked her colleagues when she announced last month that she would not seek re-election due to work and family issues.

barbara o'brien
Barbara O’Brien

O’Brien, a well-known figure in Colorado and former head of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, would no doubt generate huge dollars and high-profile support in her campaign bid.

Get Smart Schools is a 5-year-old Colorado nonprofit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools as well as other autonomous schools serving low-income children in Colorado. To that end, the organization offers a leadership development program to identify and train leaders for such schools and works to help charter schools thrive through advocacy at the policy level.

O’Brien previously told EdNews she is especially interested in focusing on quality school leadership by providing support and training to principals, assistant principals and lead teachers. She has also expressed interest – in her role at Get Smart – in expanding the reach of successful charter school programs in traditional schools as well.

O’Brien said she didn’t think her work for Get  Smart would create a conflict of interest should she serve on the board but she said she would consult with district counsel. DPS board member Nate Easley served as vice president of the Denver Scholarship Foundation while he served on the board.

O’Brien said she wouldn’t announce her decision until after Memorial Day weekend.

“I do know education has been the heart and soul of my career over many years,” she said. “I think DPS is at a point where there are some really interesting decisions it needs to make…the directions it can go for English language learners, and getting reading sores up in elementary schools, and schools on the turnaround clock.”

However, O’Brien said she had professional and personal issues to consider as well. Her running a campaign and serving on the board would have to be a “win win” for Get Smart Schools.

“I also have a nonprofit to run, and I really like having my private life back,” she said. “It’s a matter of taking a deep breath over Memorial Day weekend… and at least having the time to think and do pros and cons.”

Union organizer running for Merida’s seat in SW Denver

Meanwhile, another candidate for DPS board member Andrea Merida’s seat in southwest Denver is union organizer Rosario De Baca.

De Baca is a mother of five and field organizer for Colorado Wins, a union representing 31,000 state employees. She recently helped organize custodians at the Auraria higher education campus who were upset about working conditions there.

De Baca is also a former community organizer with the American Federation of Teachers who worked on Obama’s first campaign.

In October, De Baca expressed concerns about Denver schools on a Facebook page promoting an informational event by opponents of the 3B bond.

“I am pretty upset that upkeep at neighborhood school languishes, kids go to classes without AC, libraries limited and classrooms are intolerably hot. Yet DPS wants to pump huge sums into Loretto Heights (privately owned). I WILL NOT VOTE TO FUND UPGRADES OF A PRIVATE BUILDING. Privateers are making money fist over barrel and cheating students and educators of necessary funds for our neighborhood schools, then attack same for “failing.””

De Baca was scheduled to address the Denver metro branch of the Colorado Latino Forum Tuesday evening. The forum was supposed to endorse candidates in the DPS but opted to postpone those decisions until August or September, according to Denver chapter co-chair Lisa Calderon.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede