On the heels of endorsements from the Denver teachers union, the local chapter of a national education reform group has endorsed a different set of candidates for Denver school board.
The Students for Education Reform Action Network Colorado announced on July 25 that it is endorsing Diana Romero Campbell in a three-way race for a seat representing southeast Denver. Romero Campbell is the head of a nonprofit organization that provides after-school and summer tutoring to local students, as well as a mother of two whose youngest child will be a senior this fall at the Denver high school from which she herself graduated.
Earlier in July, the student group, known as SFER, endorsed Tony Curcio in a three-way race for a school board seat representing northwest Denver. Curcio is an engineer and father of three with a long history of volunteering in the district, including on a committee that monitors how the district spends voter-approved funds.
And in what was a three-way race for a seat representing the city at large before one candidate dropped out, SFER endorsed Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who previously worked as a liaison between Denver Public Schools and the city. Menocal Harrigan attended Denver schools as a child and is now a parent whose oldest son will be attending a district kindergarten in the fall.
The endorsements come with a promise of support. An announcement says SFER “will now unleash their expansive field and digital program, in which student activists will make contact with tens of thousands of voters in support of” its endorsed candidates.
In 2015, a political committee affiliated with SFER spent more than $42,000 to help elect pro-reform Denver school board candidates. In 2017, it spent nearly $24,000.
The committee got its funding from Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based 501(c)4 social welfare organization that also funds a political committee connected to the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform. As a social welfare organization, Education Reform Now Advocacy is not required to publicly disclose its donors — and it does not.
DFER officials said its political committee, which is separate from the student group, won’t deploy money in this year’s Denver school board races because DFER is focusing on statewide issues instead. In 2017, the DFER committee spent more than $400,000 to elect pro-reform candidates.
With DFER sitting out the race, it’s possible that more money will flow through SFER.
For more than a decade, Denver voters elected a majority of school board members who agreed with reform policies such as closing struggling schools and replicating high-performing charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.
But the political winds have begun to shift. In 2017, two candidates backed by the teachers union, which opposes such reform policies, won election to the board. This year, the union and a coalition of community groups are trying to win at least two more seats, thus “flipping” the board majority. The union announced its endorsements earlier this week.
Curcio, Romero Campbell, and Menocal Harrigan all told Chalkbeat they are supportive of charter schools that serve students well. Curcio and Menocal Harrigan also noted that the district needs to be realistic about the need to consolidate or close schools based on declining enrollment across the city, and Romero Campbell said no option should be taken off the table.
The SFER endorsements were made by a group of 12 students, including some current and former Denver Public Schools students, said the organization’s director of campaign organizing, Christian Esperias.
The endorsements were based on candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that asked about charter schools, the effects of gentrification on schools, and mental health supports for students, among other topics.
SFER has been pushing the district to hire at least one full-time mental health counselor in each school and ensure the counselors reflect the students they serve. A majority of Denver’s 93,000 students are students of color.
“What resonated most with me about Alexis Menocal Harrigan is her dedication toward student wellness,” Dena Firkins, the group’s regional field director, said in a statement. “Not only does she want to work with schools to have a full-time mental health counselor, she wants to enforce annual trauma-informed training for all school staff.”
In her own statement, Menocal Harrigan said she is honored to receive the SFER students’ endorsement. She condemned those who she said are sowing division based on the endorsements from SFER and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
“It is unfortunate that some are pitting teachers against students following the DCTA endorsements,” she said. “As we build solutions in DPS, we have to commit to bring everyone to the table from all sides, and not let adult politics get in the way of what is best for kids.”
In endorsing Curcio, SFER cited his experience with school budgets and improvement plans.
“With three of his own children in Denver Public Schools … I know he’s personally invested in holding our schools accountable to put students first, as well as ensuring a dignified and professional wage for teachers,” said SFER student leader Jessie Jennett.
In its endorsement of Romero Campbell, which came a week after the other two, SFER noted her deep roots in Denver Public Schools, including as a student growing up in southeast Denver and as a professional raising her family there.
“She’s spent over 20 years working in the Denver metro area in the nonprofit sector on education issues like parent engagement, early childhood education, and youth development,” SFER Action Network Fellow Arianna Cooper said in a statement. Fellows are students who are paid to make phone calls, knock on doors, and more for the political causes the SFER Action Network supports.
Here’s an updated list of all the Denver school board candidates, in alphabetical order. Candidates have until Aug. 30 to jump into the race. The election is Nov. 5.