emotional night

Denver school board votes to close three low-performing schools under new policy

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Gilpin supporter addresses the school board before the closure vote in December.

The Denver school board voted unanimously Thursday night to close three persistently low-performing Denver elementary schools after hours of passionate public comment in which teachers, parents and students pleaded for more time for their schools.

Greenlee Elementary in west Denver and Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver will be restarted in the fall of 2018, meaning the current schools will be closed and replaced with schools Denver Public Schools deems more likely to succeed.

Gilpin Montessori, an elementary school in northeast Denver, will be closed at the end of this year. The board approved a DPS staff recommendation that Gilpin not be replaced with another elementary school due to low enrollment projections.

Board members acknowledged the difficulty of the decisions — one member called them “gut-wrenching” — but said they felt an obligation to stand by the new policy, which was created in an attempt to make the school closure process more consistent and objective.

“A couple of people tonight spoke about integrity,” said board member Happy Haynes. “I believe with my vote here tonight, and with my colleagues who support this, we are doing what we said we would do when we created this policy.”

The policy, called the School Performance Compact, was adopted by the school board last year and put in place for the first time this fall. For a school to be closed or restarted, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings;

— Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Greenlee, Amesse and Gilpin met all of those criteria. As a result, district staff recommended all three for closure.

Still, groups of supporters from each school pleaded with the board Thursday for another chance.

Parents and educators from Gilpin Montessori described vast improvements in morale and student achievement this school year that has yet to be reflected in state tests and questioned the district’s low enrollment projections for a neighborhood experiencing booming growth.

“Instead of shutting our neighborhood school, honor students by putting them first,” said Katherine Murphy, president of Gilpin’s collaborative school committee. “ … Please do not stop us now. We are on our way up now and need more time.”

Gilpin supporters also cited a lack of viable Montessori options in the city. Several board members said they recognized the hardship of closing a school with such a unique model, and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents the part of the city where Gilpin is located, put forth a proposal to provide transportation next year for current Gilpin students who want to attend a different DPS Montessori school. The board unanimously approved her proposal.

Supporters of Greenlee and Amesse, which are slated for restart, told the board their schools had begun restarts of their own and asked for the opportunity to see them through.

Amesse has a new leader this year, new curricula, a new focus on school culture and an overwhelmingly new and diverse teaching staff, teachers and parents said. Data shows students are already making gains in reading, they said, and kids are developing a love for math.

“We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” said third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg. Invoking the school’s motto, she added: “We teach our students to do the right thing every day. I now ask you to do the right thing: vote no to restart.”

Educators from Greenlee pointed to the school’s “Possibility Plan,” developed with community input under the leadership of principal Sheldon Reynolds, who started at Greenlee last year. Students are showing academic growth, they said, and more teachers are choosing to stay.

They asked the board to put Greenlee’s restart in Reynolds’ hands rather than choose another program run by leaders with no knowledge of the neighborhood.

“We are roses growing in concrete,” former Greenlee teacher Tania Hogan said, quoting rap artist Tupac Shakur. “We created our own innovative path and it is showing great promise. … What if you took the concrete away and gave us the soil to grow?”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that educators from both schools are encouraged to submit restart plans and said the district will support their efforts.

“I hope you’ll stick with us and work through,” said board member Mike Johnson. He echoed others in saying that ultimately, the decision to close persistently low-performing schools is about providing all students with the best possible education.

“We don’t get do-overs with our kids,” he said.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.