Denver decides

Happy Haynes edges challenger Robert Speth in DPS at-large race

Robert Speth with a supporter at his election watch party at a northwest Denver restaurant (Melanie Asmar).

Denver school board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes narrowly prevailed over upstart challenger Robert Speth in unofficial final results released Wednesday morning for the contested at-large DPS board seat.

Haynes tallied 53,729 votes and Speth had 52,918, according to Denver elections returns. The incumbent had trailed in earlier returns.

While close, Haynes’s margin appeared to put the result out of the range of a recount. In a two-person race, a recount is triggered if the difference between the two candidates is effectively a quarter of one percent, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A loss to the virtually unknown Speth would have been a stunning turn for Haynes, a Denver political fixture. Speth framed himself as an outsider, a check against what he describes as a “rubber stamp” board backing the district’s decade-old reforms.

If Haynes’ result holds — and at this point it should be a formality, with results becoming official in the coming weeks —it would mean a school board united behind the reforms of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Two other candidates prevailed Tuesday night over Boasberg critics. Lisa Flores won by healthy margin in northwest Denver’s District 5, and incumbent Anne Rowe easily held onto southeast Denver’s District 1 seat.

Haynes declined comment Tuesday night to a Chalkbeat reporter about early returns that showed her behind, then left an election party that also featured supporters of three Denver city ballot measures. Speth was cautious in his remarks Tuesday night.

In the race for a seat to represent northwest and west Denver, Flores defeated opponent Michael Kiley, 53 percent to 47 percent.

In the southeast race, Rowe won 62 percent of the vote to challenger Kristi Butkovich’s 38 percent.

Three seats were up for grabs on the seven-member school board, which almost always supports the district’s vision of a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

Six candidates ran for the three seats. Three of the candidates, including the two incumbents, largely agree with that vision and three don’t. But even if the naysayers had all prevailed, they wouldn’t have held enough board seats to block the district’s reform-minded policies.

The most contentious race unfolded in northwest and west Denver, where Flores and Kiley sought to represent District 5 and replace Arturo Jimenez, who is term-limited. Jimenez is often the lone dissenting voice on the board.

Flores, a former senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, was favored by reform groups that agree with DPS’s philosophy. Kiley, a program manager for a software company, was supported by the teachers union. He unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in 2013.

The two candidates differed on several key issues, including the use of “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries meant to increase participation in school choice and diversify schools. Flores is cautiously supportive while Kiley opposes them because, he says, students don’t always end up at their first-choice school.

“We know from Denver’s experiment with forced busing that parents with resources will choose the schools they prefer or leave the district,” he wrote in response to a question on a Chalkbeat questionnaire sent to all DPS candidates. (Read all of the responses here.)

Kiley and Flores also disagreed on charter schools. Kiley believes they should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them, and that charters shouldn’t have boundaries. Flores is more agnostic when it comes to school type.

“I believe that we need to focus less on the model of school governance and much more about knowing that it is successfully educating our children,” she wrote in response to a different question on the questionnaire.

As of Oct. 25, campaign finance reports showed that Flores raised a total of $110,219 thanks in part to more than 400 individual donors, which is more than contributed to any other candidate. Notable donors included Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners ($5,000); Michelle Yee of San Francisco, whose husband co-founded LinkedIn ($4,000); Colorado congressman Jared Polis ($2,000); and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg ($2,000), who also wrote the bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Kiley has gotten the bulk of his support — $84,000 of the $111,469 he’d raised by Oct. 25 — from teachers unions, which prefer his vision of strong “neighborhood schools” that offer comprehensive music, arts and sports programs in addition to academics.

In the past few weeks, cash has also flowed into the at-large race between Haynes and Speth. Haynes is a former Denver city councilwoman who’s worked for two mayors and champions many of the district’s policies. Speth is a father of two who works in the telecommunications industry. He’s been critical of DPS’s direction.

“The city of Denver should and CAN do better,” Speth wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire. “The decisions that are being made in education today are wrong.”

Haynes, meanwhile, largely supports the reform work of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, calling him “extraordinarily effective.”

Haynes and Speth disagree on other topics too, including how test scores should be used to rate schools. Haynes applauds DPS’s rating system for taking several factors into account when rating a school, including parent engagement and progress made on closing achievement gaps between, for example, low-income and non-low-income students. Speth argues the system still relies too heavily on students’ academic growth.

Speth was a late entrant to the race; he didn’t kick off his campaign until early September. Shortly after he did, Haynes’s fundraising skyrocketed. In two weeks in October, she more than quadrupled the amount of money she’d raised in the previous year, bringing her fundraising total to $90,629. Thiry ($5,000), Yee ($4,000) and Polis ($1,000) also contributed to her campaign.

Speth has raised less money: $60,196 as of Oct. 25, including $40,000 from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund, a union-affiliated small donor committee.

Editor’s note: Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation. 

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”