new blood

Denver Public Schools parent, behavioral health specialist appointed to fill vacant board seat

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DPS board vice president Barbara O'Brien. left, and board president Anne Rowe.

A mother of two Denver Public Schools students who works in behavioral health was appointed Monday by the Denver school board president to fill a vacant board seat after the previous appointee stepped aside more than two weeks ago.

Rachele Espiritu is set to represent northeast Denver until the fall of 2017. She will finish the term of former board member Landri Taylor, who resigned in February.

Previous appointee MiDian Holmes declined the seat last month after details about a decade-old misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

The task to fill the vacancy fell to school board president Anne Rowe after the 60-day window state law provides school boards to fill a vacancy had closed.

Rowe didn’t have many candidates to choose from in the end. After Holmes dropped out, the board president announced she’d pick a new member from among a group of finalists. But several finalists withdrew, leaving just three choices, including Espiritu.

In announcing her pick, Rowe said Espiritu would “engage deeply” with all the communities of northeast Denver.

She also spotlighted the diversity Espiritu will bring to the board in representing District 4, the largest and most racially diverse district in DPS. Espiritu was born in the Philippines, grew up in the United States and has lived in Denver for more than three years. One of her children attends a traditional DPS school and the other goes to a charter school.

“We are so fortunate on the board of education to have a truly diverse board of education — different lived experiences, different professional talents bringing different things to the board,” Rowe said.

Espiritu (photo provided by DPS).
Espiritu (photo provided by DPS).

Espiritu, who attended the meeting, said she believes in meeting the needs of every child regardless of background and station in life. She said she will advocate for great schools in every neighborhood that address the interests of the “whole child” — a DPS priority.

“Our families, the community, the district and the board need to work collaboratively together to achieve our common mission,” she said.

Espiritu, 46, is a project director for the National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health and serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Colorado. She is also a member of the Denver Asian Pacific-American Commission.

The process of appointing someone to fill the vacant seat on the seven-member DPS school board has been long and marred by district missteps and candidates dropping out.

Initially, more than 20 candidates applied. The six remaining board members narrowed the field to 10 finalists, one of whom withdrew shortly thereafter.

The nine remaining candidates were interviewed by the board members in early April. In her interview, Espiritu said she and her family were drawn to Denver partly because of the school district’s reputation for being innovative and transformative.

She touted her ability to find common ground and ask questions. And she framed her relative newness to Denver as an asset because she doesn’t have longstanding ties to any one group.

On April 12, the board took two votes by secret ballot. The first winnowed the pool of nine finalists to three: Holmes, Espiritu and Jennifer Bacon. In a second round of voting, Holmes got four votes, Bacon got two and Espiritu got none, making Holmes the appointee.

But on April 14, she announced she wouldn’t accept the appointment, saying she would be doing the district “a great disservice” if she allowed the facts surrounding her 2006 child abuse conviction to continue “to be a distraction.”

On April 18, Rowe said she would likely choose a new member from among the finalists who received votes on April 12, whether or not they made it into the top three. Those finalists were Holmes, Espiritu, Bacon, Makisha Boothe and Dexter Korto.

But by Monday, only Espiritu was still in the running.

In an email to the DPS board and the district’s general counsel, Bacon said she was dropping out of the race “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position as well as my interests in supporting the board.” She told Chalkbeat by text it wasn’t the best time for her to serve on the board and she wanted “to do a little more learning and reflecting.”

Boothe wrote an email to Rowe and the board’s assistant explaining that the April 12 vote tally contributed to her decision to drop out. In a separate email to Chalkbeat, Boothe said she knew Rowe hadn’t voted for her. “Knowing that, I was just ready to move on,” she said.

Rowe voted for Holmes and Espiritu in the first round and Holmes in the second round, according to vote tallies obtained by Chalkbeat through an open records request.

Korto, a DPS charter school teacher, wrote in an email to Chalkbeat that he decided to “pursue leadership opportunities elsewhere.”

On Monday, the district’s website listed just three remaining candidates: Espiritu, Jo-Nell Herndon and Adrienne Tate. Herndon and Tate were among the original top 10 finalists.

Editor’s note: DPS board president Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. Frank Rowe’s position is not part of Chalkbeat’s news operation.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.