A Denver father who narrowly lost a seat on the Denver Public Schools board to a well-known incumbent two years ago is running again this year, one of three candidates challenging another well-known incumbent, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O’Brien.
O’Brien’s at-large seat is among four on the seven-member board up for grabs this fall. Incumbents are running in three of the four races, and every race is now contested.
The stakes are high: All seven current board members support district leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools. Victories by candidates who oppose those reforms would increase disagreement on a board that often votes 7-0. A sweep by those candidates could potentially change the direction of key district policies.
The field for the at-large seat is the biggest thus far. Of the three candidates vying to unseat O’Brien, Robert Speth is likely the most familiar to voters after his showing in 2015.
The father of two was a political unknown when he emerged late in the campaign to challenge former city councilwoman Happy Haynes, who at the time was president of the DPS board.
Haynes had recently been appointed head of the city parks department, which raised questions about whether it was a conflict for her to hold both that job and an at-large seat on the volunteer school board. The Denver Board of Ethics said it was not.
But Speth called for an “absolute separation” between the two roles. He also criticized the district’s embrace of charter schools and co-locating different schools in the same building, arguing that DPS often ignored the wishes of family and community members.
On Election Day, he lost to Haynes by 913 votes.
Speth, 45, said he’s been watching the board for past two years and doesn’t agree with its approach to closing low-performing schools. It was “just heartbreaking,” he said, to hear parents and teachers at three schools the board voted to close last year begging for another chance.
“School closure has got to be viewed as an absolute last resort,” Speth said. “Now the way we’re operating, it’s, ‘Sure, no problem.’”
If elected, he said he’d also work to rein in the number of standardized tests students take, slow the pace of new charter school approvals and increase community engagement. Having children in DPS schools sets him apart from his opponents, he said.
Speth has the formidable task of trying to unseat O’Brien, 67, who recently stepped down as president of Catapult, a development program for leaders of low-income schools.
She is well-known in Colorado politics, having served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011. Before that, she was the longtime president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and helped create the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk children.
O’Brien said she’s running for re-election to continue to push for gains in the areas she’s most passionate about, including getting young learners off to a good start and ensuring that high school graduates can afford college or vocational training.
O’Brien is most proud of the increased autonomy the district has granted school leaders during her tenure on the board, how it’s empowering teachers to coach other teachers and how leaders worked with a community organization to craft a policy that limits suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through third grade, she said.
She voted for the recent school closures, explaining that while the district should do all it can to help a school improve, it also can’t let children languish in programs that aren’t working.
“Sometimes you just need a fresh start,” O’Brien said.
Candidates Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka are also vying for the at-large seat.
Banuelos, 44, spent her early childhood in northeast Denver, where she attended an elementary school that later was turned into a magnet school for gifted students. Until this past October, Banuelos was a DPS teacher, working with Spanish-speaking elementary school students, and was on the board of directors of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union.
She said “a lot of frustration with the reform that is taking priority in DPS” caused her to leave her job. She called the criteria the board uses to close low-performing schools “flimsy” and said the district’s school choice system should be reworked to ensure it’s providing equal opportunity to low-income families who can’t drive their children to schools across town. And she’d like the district to pause on approving new charter schools with strict behavior policies.
“They promote values that don’t reflect our community,” Banuelos said.
Fujioka is a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who oversaw special education in a lower-income area of the suburban district. She’s also a North High School graduate whose daughter graduated from DPS, as well, and she has been active for years in the Denver Democratic Party. Fujioka is Japanese American, and she and her family were in an internment camp when she was a toddler, she said.
She disagrees with closing low-performing traditional schools and said the expansion of charter schools in Denver has created “a system of unequal education where it does depend on where you live and if you have the means to really choose and get your student there.”
Fujioka said she thinks DPS should shift funding away from administrative staff and into classrooms to lower class sizes and provide more professional development for teachers.
The other seats in play represent the southwest, northeast and central east parts of the city.
Incumbent Mike Johnson is running for re-election to represent central east Denver. DPS teacher Carrie A. Olson told Chalkbeat she intends to run against him. Olson is a social studies and English language development teacher at West Leadership Academy.
Incumbent Rachele Espiritu is running to continue representing northeast Denver. She has two challengers: recent high school graduate Tay Anderson, and Jennifer Bacon, an attorney and community organizer who works for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for education policy changes.
The board member who currently holds the seat representing southwest Denver, Rosemary Rodriguez, is not running again. But she has endorsed one of the candidates: former DPS teacher Angela Cobian. DPS parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is also running for the seat.
The field will not be set until Sept. 1, the deadline for filing petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.