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DPS candidate declines “special interest” forums

A Denver Public Schools board candidate is refusing to attend forums sponsored by several community and education groups because they accept money from two foundations that also support charter schools.

Christopher Scott, who is seeking an at-large seat on the Denver school board, issued a press release Tuesday saying he would not attend the forums sponsored by Padres Unidos, Metro Organizations for People, A+ Denver and Education News Colorado.

All four groups accept funding from the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations, which Scott described as “supporting the creation of charter schools or the charter schools themselves.”

“It is of concern to voters that school board candidate forums be unbiased, unimpeachable and promote the equal exchange of ideas related to education,” Scott said in his release. “That cannot happen when the organizations funding the sponsors have been working with my opponent to create new charter schools in Denver.”

The forums also are being sponsored by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and Teach for America. The three are not mentioned in the release.

Frank Tapy, a parent leader with Metro Organizations for People who is working on the first forum, scheduled for Sept. 23, said he had not previously heard any concerns from candidates.

“We are disappointed that people are pulling out because we purposely hold forums to acquaint people with the candidates and to hear what the candidates have to say on the issues,” he said.

Scott, in his press release, said three other candidates would be joining him in declining to attend the forums. However, all three of those candidates contacted by Ed News said that was incorrect and they planned to attend the forums.

“There may have been a miscommunication,” said Nicolas Weiser, Scott’s communications director. “I think that’s secondary. What’s certainly most important from our perspective is we’re not going to participate.”

Weiser said Scott, who bills himself as the “neighborhood schools candidate,” is taking his stance based on what he’s heard from parents, teachers and others in community meetings across Denver.

“What we’ve heard from people … is that they want DPS to focus on neighborhood schools first,” Weiser said. “They’re not against charters and certainly we’re not against charters because I think they do serve a purpose.”

But, he added, “DPS, with the support of Donnell-Kay and Piton, is focusing on replacing traditional schools or neighborhood schools with charter schools.”

Both Donnell-Kay and Piton are private Denver-based foundations. Donnell-Kay was incorporated in 1965 through a trust by the Kay family and its board of trustees is led by former state lawmaker Allen Dines. Piton was created in 1976 by Denver oil man Sam Gary and is funded by the Gary-Williams Energy Corp.

Both are non-profit 501(c)3 foundations that have been heavily involved in education issues, including charter schools, for decades.

“We’ve given millions of dollars – substantially more money to DPS than we’ve ever given to charters,” said Van Schoales, urban education program officer for Piton.

Tony Lewis, executive director of Donnell-Kay, is the board chairman of Envision Schools Colorado, a charter schools group.

But he’s also served on the board of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, he pointed out, and supported other DPS initiatives.

“We support a lot of things, charter schools being one of them,” Lewis said. “Where do you draw the line on what is allowable and not allowable?”

Tapy said Metro Organizations for People, a non-profit focused on advocacy for low-income communities, does receive funding from Piton and Donnell-Kay.

But he said MOP has made it “very clear” that “our funders do not affect our policy” in meetings with candidates to discuss the debates and the upcoming election.

“Mr. Scott seems to be thinking that we will present information that would bias people toward charter schools,” Tapy said. “However, there is nothing on the schedule so far that has anything really to do with charter schools.”

“The questions which have been formed, developed by the members of MOP – none of them had anything to do with charter schools.”

In addition, he pointed out, “We can’t support candidates, we can’t and we don’t because of our non-profit status.”

Denver’s school board elections are seen as pivotal because three of the seven seats on the board are hotly contested. Scott has two opponents, Mary Seawell and Deborah Fard, while five candidates are running to represent northeast Denver and two candidates want the seat in southwest Denver.

Jeanne Kaplan, an incumbent, is unopposed in the campaign to represent central Denver.

Scott was attending a DPS meeting in Stapleton Tuesday night. Weiser, who has two children in DPS, said they want the voices of parents and community members to ring as loudly in DPS’ ears as does the influence of Piton and Donnell-Kay.

“Although they do fund some traditional schools,” he said of the foundations, “they are emphasizing charters certainly at the expense of neighborhood schools.”

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

Click here to read Christopher Scott’s press release.