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Thomas W. Gamel, big donor, speaks

Tom Gamel doesn’t like publicity – “Having my name in the paper does zero for me,” he said.

But when you give nearly $150,000 to candidates for the Denver Public Schools’ board of education, and your friends give another $75,000, you’re in the spotlight.

On Election Day, the Denver investor talked to Ed News about public education, charters, unions and why he’s giving $500,000 a year to what was once Colorado’s lowest-performing middle school.

Ed News: You don’t appear to have been a major player in Colorado politics so why start with DPS?

Gamel: I don’t like politics. I hate politics and most politicians. I was arm-twisted into giving $500 to Orrin Hatch, I was arm-twisted into giving $500 to Marc Holtzman. Bruce Benson – back then we were very good friends. That was a contribution I made willingly. I still think Bruce is a great guy even though we’ve had our differences. Bruce has really got his heart into education. I think he’s been great for education in Colorado.

I’m interested in education. Federico Pena put it brilliantly. He said this is a national security issue. Dan Ritchie said, hey Tom, this is the biggest problem there is in America and God knows we’ve got lots of them. I think it was (the Rev. Al) Sharpton who said this is the last major civil rights issue. If we don’t straighten this education system out, this country is going to go to hell.

It’s not a political thing. Unfortunately, the school board has to be elected, which I’m not sure is the most intelligent way to go about this … I think it’s very silly to have to spend this kind of money to elect a good school board.

Ed News: What do you expect in return for that kind of money?

Gamel: I have no control. I have never had a conversation with one of these candidates that I’m supporting where I have said, this is what I want to do. They’ve told me they are reform-minded candidates and their hearts are in the same place as mine. I am certainly going to express my opinion but I don’t expect anything. I haven’t asked for anything nor will I.

But believe me, I have some ideas and some things I would like to see done and I am going to push. It’s not just on a local level. We have a President of the United States who says he’s committed to education, we have a Secretary of Education who was a reformer in Chicago, we now have a senator from Colorado who probably knows more about education than anyone in the United States Senate…

If the will is there, change can be made. I‘ve never seen an opportunity like this in my life.

Ed News: So what do you get out of it?

Gamel: I’m just passionate about inner-city children. I’ve given a lot of money to different organizations … I was born and raised here in Denver and my heart is with inner-city children, I just don’t think they get a fair shot. That’s why I’m doing it.

I’ve been interested really in DPS … Colorado Uplift, which works in the DPS schools, that’s really how my interest started … Then when Michael Bennet came – I was so impressed with Michael and what he said. I said, there’s actually a chance to fix this broken thing, here’s a guy who really gets it.

Michael was reluctant at first to do charters. I’m not a big charter person. I don’t care what you call the school, let’s make it a good one. I think we need to fix the neighborhood schools …

There needs to be a revolution in education. People should be screaming about this education system. Not just in Denver, everywhere.

Ed News: What are you doing at the former Cole Middle School, which was once shut down by the state for chronic poor performance?

Gamel: What I’ve told Cole is that I have committed $500,000 every year to be spent at their request on my approval. I’m very involved in the school, I’m on their leadership council, and I intend to give $500,000 a year for a long period of time because I’m trying to help Cole become the shining light of what can happen in a school that failed twice in the inner city. It’s a quote neighborhood school, not a charter.

I was searching for a way to help … I wanted to get involved first-hand, rather than just giving my money to Colorado Uplift. I wanted to be there first-hand, I wanted to observe, I wanted to get to know the people who run the school, who are teaching in the school.

I really wanted an inner-city school. My mother went to Cole. I used to go to my grandmother’s house at 3009 High Street once a week so I know the neighborhood. I used to go to Scotty’s Market over there on 31st and Williams and it’s still there. Cole is a grand old building … We’re going to make Cole a great school.

Ed News: Cole is now an innovation school called the Cole Arts & Sciences Academy. Why is the innovation status so important?

Gamel: I would not have given the money if they had not become an innovation school. Here’s a school the shackles have been taken off of. They are free to hire and dismiss, they can pay what they want, they have freedom over their budget …

Every organization, I don’t care if it’s a business, a hospital, a school, an art museum – it’s all about the quality of the people and if you cannot hire the right people and if you cannot dismiss people who are ineffective and if people are placed on you involuntarily and if you can’t lay off except by seniority, you’ve got no chance, I don’t care how good a manager you are.

Ed News: What do you mean by shackles?

Gamel: I mean collective bargaining rules and state laws. For example, we have a state law that says you rate every teacher satisfactory or unsatisfactory. That’s absurd. You’re not either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. And how many are rated unsatisfactory? 1 percent …

I think I can run pretty much anything, I was blessed with that talent. With the conditions that are imposed upon these principals, they’ve got no chance because they can’t pay people what they’re worth, they’re stuck with these salary schedules. Just because you’ve been there two years doesn’t mean you’re worth less than somebody there 20 years.

It’s all about people. Everybody knows that successful schools are because of successful teachers. There’s been decades of research that proves that but if you’ve got ineffective teachers, you’ve got no chance of ever making a school good.

I’m not anti-union, both of my folks belonged to unions. My dad was a post office worker, he was in a union all of his life. … I’m not anti-union, I’m anti-stupid rules.

Click here to see the Ed News story about Gamel’s giving in the DPS board races.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.