Southwest Denver school board candidates Rosario C de Baca and Rosemary Rodriguez clashed over the wisdom of closing struggling schools, expanding school choice and teacher evaluations.

The only areas of true common ground the candidates found during the hour-long debate, which was moderated by KDVR Fox 31’s Eli Stokols, were that both support Amendment 66 and that neither believes the district was right to eliminate its foreign language graduation requirement. While Rodriguez focused on reform-oriented strategies to improve academic achievement, De Baca focused on improving schools by making them more community institutions.

“My vision for Denver Public Schools is that it function truly as a community institution,” De Baca said. “Where the community is engaged [and] informed about the goals in the district and that there is transparency and accountability from the board and the administration so we can begin a truly collaborative effort so that we can retain the best educators.”

“My vision for the district is a high performing school in every neighborhood,” Rodriguez responded.

The debate was third in a series sponsored by A+ Denver, EdNews and KDVR Fox31. Stokols moderated the debate using versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.

Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed during the debate:

School closures, restructuring and school choice

De Baca cited the 2006 closure of Manual High School as one of the worst decisions the Denver school board has ever made. “There was no opportunity for the community to step forward and for the alumni to step forward,” she argued.

The Manual closure happened during the superintendency of current Sen. Michael Bennet, whom Rodriguez currently works for as state director.  Rodriguez recalled her involvement in the process of re-enrolling Manual students in other schools and told a story about several former Manual students approaching Bennet in Washington, D.C., thanking him for his decision to shutter the school.

“It was a hard hard decision and in retrospect clumsy, but I’m very proud of the work I did to make sure that all of the kids went to a better school,” she said. “At the time it was closed, most of the population was Latino and I don’t think that the board or anybody should apologize for insisting those students get a better education.”

“As much as some of those students did well — there are always some who do well–  there were others who just dropped out of the education process,” De Baca responded. 

De Baca argued that the only instance in which a school should be closed is if the building presents an environmental or other immediate danger to the students, whereas Rodriguez argued that if a school is failing to educate its students, then the board has a responsibility to examine whether students would be better off at another school.

Rodriguez extended that philosophy to the question of whether struggling district-run schools should be restructured or replaced by charters.

“We have to make sure our neighborhood schools are high performing or we need to open our doors to more opportunities,” she said.

When asked what the board should do to help schools that are languishing, Rodriguez cited Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, which she suggested may be too big to effectively help students and could perhaps be restructured.

“I would be interested, if Kunsmiller continues on its trajectory, to institute smaller class sizes or smaller school sizes within a school to try to deliver a better product,” she said.

De Baca argued that, rather than focusing on the school structure, the board should provide better supports for the students and their families, including more social workers and culturally proficient school psychologists.

“We need to identify, ‘what are the challenges that the families are facing?'” De Baca said.

Transportation

Stokols asked the candidates if they believe the district should replicate the “Success Express” shuttle service  that currently operates in northeast Denver in the southwest part of the city.

“Sure, but at the same time, it’s great but it is costly,” De Baca said. “And again, I say, let’s remove the need to have to move kids out of the neighborhood schools and find a way to get them to attend school here.”

“I know parents in southwest Denver really want some transportation options,” Rodriguez responded.  “I agree that they’re costly, but…if thats the only thing keeping them between a high quality school and their home, then I think we need to look into that.”