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Moratorium issue enlivens debate

One of the more highly anticipated candidate forums of the Denver Public Schools board elections season seemed in danger of producing less drama than anticipated Tuesday night due to two candidates’ absences.

But the event had some lively moments nevertheless.

There were abundant yard signs for Emily Sirota and Arturo Jimenez outside the Davis Auditorium on the University of Denver campus – but no sign of the two candidates themselves.

Sirota, running to represent District 1 southeast Denver, and Jimenez, the incumbent seeking reelection in District 5 northwest Denver, cited prior commitments and sent surrogate campaign staffers in their place.

Also, the front-runner in the at-large race, Happy Haynes, did not arrive until 30 minutes into the 90-minute event.

By arriving late, Haynes almost missed out on one of several contentious exchanges between northwest Denver candidate Jennifer Draper Carson and Jimenez’s campaign manager, David Sabados.

Moderator Eli Stokols, a political reporter at Fox31 TV, asked Draper Carson and Sabados about a recent analysis of DPS schools’ rankings in its annual School Performance Framework by board members’ districts, which showed the northwest had the highest percentage of students attending low-performing schools. They were asked what they would do to fix that.

“My opponent put in place a moratorium on new school models a year ago and I think that is the opposite of what my children in my community need,” said Draper Carson.

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Sabados countered that Draper Carson has been using the moratorium accusation while campaigning, but that it isn’t true. “Do you have a vote to cite or something of that nature?” he asked her.

“Could anyone in the audience pull up voting records?” she asked. “I don’t have a laptop in front of me but, yeah, there’s a moratorium.”

“So, I’m sorry, you just have talking points and not something to cite?” Sabados pressed her.

“The moratorium is on new school models coming in to District 5,” Draper Carson said. “So it was enacted last fall and it expires this November.”

Sabados disputed her assertion. “During this so-called moratorium, there were several new school openings. There was a pretty clear case that there wasn’t a moratorium.”

Jimenez brought forward a proposed moratorium March 18, 2010, which called on DPS to suspend its request for new schools for one year, so that a comprehensive analysis of neighborhood school feeder patterns could be completed and presented to the community. However, the school board never voted on it.

Instead, on June 17, 2010, by a 6-0 vote, the board voted to pass a resolution to develop and implement a community engagement process for northwest Denver. It had the effect of not allowing any additional seats for the 2011-12 school year, during which the community would be able to participate in and shape decisions about its schools.

At-large board member Mary Seawell, who did not attend the debate but was told about the exchange, worked to formulate that northwest community process resolution with Jimenez, as a compromise on his original moratorium idea. She said in an interview Tuesday night that the resolution that was passed couldn’t be called a moratorium.

Closing one school, and opening a new one, as long as it did not add to the seat total in the northwest area, would also be permitted under the resolution that was passed, said Seawell.  She also pointed out that, although no additional seats could be added for the 2011-12 school year, it does not mean that new schools could not be added for a future year.

In fact, in June, the board voted unanimously to place two new schools in the failing West High School – which lies within the northwest district – for the 2012-13 school year.

Earlier in the campaign, Jimenez returned a 28-question candidate survey from A+ Denver with no responses provided. He explained that the format, in which candidates were asked to assign numbers indicating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with various policy statements, did not lend itself to the detailed answers that such issues merited.

“I think it’s just ironic that when he didn’t complete the A+ questionnaire, he commented to the effect that the questions needed to be discussed further. And when he’s given the opportunity to discuss them further, he’s choosing not to attend,” said Greta Twombly, campaign manager for Draper Carson.

There were no comparable dynamics between Anne Rowe, who is opposed by Sirota in the southeast Denver, and Kevin Paquette, the Sirota campaign manager who filled in for her at the forum.

The at-large race to replace the term-limited Theresa Peña features the largest field, but it has probably been generating the least heat.

Haynes, well known to Denver voters for years of public service that includes 13 years on the Denver City Council – two as its president – had raised $213,789 through the reporting cycle that ended Oct. 6, more than 10 times the funds of any of her competitors. She has shattered the previous DPS record for total individual donors, with more than 500, and she carries the endorsement of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Roger Kilgore had raised $8,464 as of Oct. 6, and he lashed out last week at Haynes’ fundraising, pointing out that $102,000 came from just seven donors.

“It’s no wonder that the Denver Public Schools administration does not listen to the voices of parents, teachers and the community,” Kilgore had said last week in the wake of the fund-raising reports. “They don’t have to. They can just listen to their patrons whose money derives from their corporate success.”

But there were no pointed exchanges between Kilgore and Haynes during Tuesday night’s forum.