the race is on

Barbara O’Brien has three challengers for her DPS board seat so far — and one almost pulled a big upset two years ago

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

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.

Robert Speth

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.

the race is on

Stand for Children chooses not to endorse in northeast Denver school board race

DENVER, CO - March 16: A Denver Public Schools emblem and sign on the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus that houses five separate schools with 1,600 students in Pre-K through 12th grade in Northeast Denver, Colorado on March 16, 2016. (Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post)

Stand for Children Colorado on Tuesday announced its candidate endorsements for this fall’s Denver school board races — and one notable non-endorsement.

The pro-education reform group chose not to endorse a candidate in the three-person race in District 4, which encompasses a diverse mix of northeast Denver neighborhoods. The group said both incumbent Rachele Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed the group’s “threshold for endorsement,” and that “Denver’s kids would be well served by either candidate.”  

Recent Manual High School graduate Tay Anderson is also vying for the seat.

With four of seven seats in play, this fall’s election could swing the balance of a school board that unanimously backs the school district’s education reform efforts.

Stand is a significant player in Denver school board elections. It donates money to candidates and helps marshal resources on the ground, including door-to-door canvassing.

Kate Dando Doran, a spokeswoman for Stand for Children Colorado, said in an email the group will not contribute financially to candidates in District 4. She said that families Stand works with in southwest Denver are supporting former teacher Angela Cobián’s campaign in that part of the city, and that Stand would focus its energy and resources there, too.  

Cobián has the support of incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running again. Stand endorsed Cobián in her race against parent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who has teachers union backing.

Stand for Children’s other endorsements do not come as a surprise: incumbent Barbara O’Brien in the citywide at-large race that includes former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos and parent Robert Speth; and incumbent Mike Johnson for District 3 in central-east Denver, who is facing English language development teacher Carrie A. Olson.

To be considered for Stand’s endorsement, candidates agree to answer a candidate questionnaire and to be interviewed by a committee of parents. Doran said O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson, Bacon and Espiritu went through the group’s process.

That Stand could not settle on an endorsement in District 4 adds to the drama in the three-person race. Opponents of the district’s reforms haven’t united on a pick, either. The Denver teachers union endorsed Bacon, a community organizer and former teacher. The advocacy group Our Denver, Our Schools and a progressive caucus of the teachers union are backing Anderson.

Local funding

Colorado school districts taking another shot at tax measures after past defeats

A student works on her geometry homework during class at Brighton High School in Brighton on Nov. 12, 2015. (Denver Post file photo)

Higher teacher pay, technology upgrades and better curriculum resources are topping the wish lists of Colorado school districts going to voters with tax measures this November.

The Brighton 27J school district is one of nearly 20 districts with money measures on local ballots, and the only one in the Denver metro area. Colorado Springs’ District 11 and Greeley 6 also are asking voters for increased funding.

“We need it,” said Brighton superintendent Chris Fiedler. “We desperately need it.”

With a long-term fix to Colorado’s school funding challenges proving elusive, districts are left to make up gaps with local tax measures. That has led to vast inequities, with some districts able to bank on local voters and others being turned down again and again.

Voters in Brighton approved a bond request two years ago on a third attempt. The district had already resorted to stretching out school days to fit the district’s growing number of students in existing buildings. Voters then approved the bond request to help the district make more space.

But bond requests in Colorado are only allowed for certain uses, such as buildings.

That’s why the district is back this year, asking for a $12 million mill levy override, a property tax increase. The district has asked for this type of tax increase five times since 2003, but has been turned down every time. The last mill levy request approved was in 2000.

The money this year would be used to increase salaries, add counselors to every elementary school and provide new curriculum and technology. The district is in such financial straits, it recently had to purchase new literacy resources on a three-year payment plan.

Superintendent Fiedler said the district’s needs have been identified since 2014, but that he waited to ask because he didn’t think voters would approve both a bond and mill levy request on the same ballot.

“In my mind, it’s long overdue,” Fiedler said.

In Greeley, the district also asked voters for an increase in local taxes last year and was turned down.

This time the district is seeking approval for a $14 million mill levy request that would go to pay teachers and staff more and to update curriculum, technology and add security cameras at the high school.

Terri Pappas, school board director and co-chair of the campaign for the ballot question, said people last year just wanted the district to be more specific about how the money would be used, and some needed more information about how school funding works.

“We did a lot of outreach and we’ve taken all of that feedback, all of that information and we’ve been working diligently since May coming up with a plan to reach voters,” Pappas said.

The difference between the no votes and yes votes last year was so close, Pappas said, that district leaders felt they had to use that momentum this year.

Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer of Colorado Springs School District 11, said district leaders there felt the same way.

District 11 is also just asking for a mill levy override this year, but has raised the amount to $42 million, up from last year’s unsuccessful $32.6 million mill levy request. The money would be used for salaries, facility improvements and for new school psychologists and counselors.

Gustafson said the low salaries are especially affecting the district’s ability to hire support staff. For instance, the district has 29 open positions for food workers, he said.

“We’re short on bus drivers every single day,” Gustafson said. “We have to pull people out of the office to help drive.”

Voters last approved a mill levy tax increase in District 11 in 2000. Voters in Greeley have never approved a property tax increase for school funding.

Brighton’s district leaders think there’s one more thing that might be able to make a difference in this year’s elections: the voter base.

Colorado voter registration records show Adams County has seen an increase of more than 37,000 voters since November of 2011, the last time Brighton asked voters for a mill levy override. In recent years, voter records show one of the biggest increases is among 18 to 25 year-olds.

“The vast majority of those folks are young families with kids,” Superintendent Fiedler said. “They have different perspectives.”

In District 11, Gustafson said a large challenge is reaching voters who don’t have children in schools. In Greeley, officials believe there are new young families in the district, but it remains a challenge to get them all to vote.

“We need to make sure we reach out to all of our voters,” Gustafson said. “And we’re pushing to get all of our parents involved.”