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Decision time nears in quiet DPS races

Ballots will be mailed to voters in little more than a week but those watching Denver’s school board races say they lack expected intensity, with decision time drawing near.

Candidate signs lined the path to Saturday's forum at Denver Community Church.

Candidate signs lined the path to Saturday’s forum at Denver Community Church.

Patrick Wall

“If I used thermal imaging, it wouldn’t register at all. There’s like, no heat,” said Norman Provizer, professor of political science at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

All nine candidates vying for three board seats came together Saturday for the second of three forums organized through the League of Women Voters and Inter Neighborhood Cooperation. As has been largely the case at candidate forums to date, an air of civility prevailed.

Monday marks the last day to register to vote and then there’s just under a month before ballots are due Nov. 1. But so far, the board races are not going the way some political observers and many in the DPS community anticipated.

“In years past, we’ve seen candidates get pretty vocal and confrontational, and I haven’t seen that same level,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. “It’s just been quiet.

“I couldn’t even name all the candidates in the at-large race,” Lewis confessed. “There are five, aren’t there?”

There are, in fact, five – John Daniel, Frank Deserino, Happy Haynes, Roger Kilgore and Jacqui Shumway want the citywide seat now held by Theresa Peña, who is term-limited.

A month is an eternity in political campaigns so there’s plenty of time for drama to develop. But those studying the races believe several factors have muted the fireworks:

  • The at-large race features, in Haynes, a well-known Denver public figure against four lesser-known challengers whose victory would be seen as a significant upset.
  • The reputation of the current board is divisive enough that none of the candidates see any advantage in matching that acrimony on the campaign trail.
  • A slumping economy is possibly putting a damper on the money that donors are willing to pour into the races. The first campaign finance reports, due Oct. 11, may confirm or refute this.
  • Perhaps most significantly, there are no other major political contests on the ballot – U.S. president, for example – and there’s only one statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 103.

Nevertheless, “I’m surprised” at the low-key tenor of the campaigns so far “given the high stakes that are in involved here,” said Paul Teske, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It seems to me that the reformers, the non-union establishment of foundations and non-profits, seems pretty well organized around Happy and Anne Rowe and Jennifer (Draper Carson),” Teske said, “and maybe they’ve decided it’s best to be relatively non-controversial; just push the candidates, and use what might be a spending advantage, and hope for the best.”

Pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli sees something similar – on the other side of the political divide.

“I think that is partially a strategy by the insurgent folks … who don’t have the board majority,” said Ciruli. “I think they see that all the controversy was ill-serving them, and so they are trying to tamp it down.”

At-large contest: ‘It’s Happy’s race to lose’

From the day Haynes announced she was resigning from her job with DPS as a chief community engagement officer in May to make a bid for the at-large seat, she has been perceived as the front-runner.

“In a way, it’s Happy’s race to lose, because she has the name recognition, because of her time on city council and DPS,” Lewis said of the former Denver City Council president. “It’s not going to be an extremely close race.”

Little has changed since May to change the perception of Haynes’ strength. Mayor Michael Hancock endorsed her. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, never likely to endorse the former DPS administrator, chose not to endorse any of her opponents. Through a random drawing, it was decided that Haynes’ name would be listed first on the ballot.

“That would be a real shocker, if she lost,” said Teske.

“Her election is virtually assured,” Ciruli said, “and starting a fight there would not have been ultimately victorious. It wouldn’t have succeeded. She is the prohibitive favorite.”

No single issue has dominated the at-large forums, but there is daylight between the citywide candidates on a variety of subjects. Kilgore has spoken frequently during the campaign about what he sees as an over-reliance within DPS on standardized testing.

“We have to remember that what we learned in education didn’t begin in 2005 with the Denver Plan,” Kilgore said at one recent forum. “We have to reinvigorate the feedback mechanism, with teachers and principals, to help us realize it’s not just test scores that tell us how we’re doing.”

Haynes countered by saying, “On standardized tests, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. They can be very useful in setting a high standard, ensuring that there is equity amongst all our high schools, and that a diploma from our high schools means something.”

Other at-large candidates frustrated by lack of attention

Prior the start of Saturday’s forum, Kilgore expressed frustration at what he sees as the candidates’ unequal treatment by the media, giving inadequate attention to new faces. And he remains dismayed that Hancock made his citywide endorsement without interviewing each of the candidates.

“There’s a strong tendency in this election for many of our political figures to align with their acquaintances and friends, without really evaluating what the options are, based on presumed outcomes of what’s good for our schools and our kids,” said Kilgore.

Meanwhile, Shumway hammers away on a platform promoting greater attention to art, music and physical fitness – her campaign business card asks “What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about?” She used her wrap-up opportunity at Saturday’s forum to sing a verse of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.”

Deserino, a South High School civics and history teacher who ran unsuccessfully in southeast Denver in 2007, stresses that only he can bring a seasoned perspective from the classroom level on what’s needed to push school and student progress.

And he laments that he believes too many have been told by DPS to “shut up.”

“Those people, the parents, the teachers, the students and the community at large, have not been heard and they need to be. I believe in accountability and transparency, like many of my colleagues. But these things cannot just be spoken about. They need to become reality,” he said Saturday.

Daniel, a Baker neighborhood resident running for political office for the first time, sounds a populist theme. He and Deserino are the two at-large candidates who said they would not support a potential Denver property tax increase to improve school funding.

“I really feel that we need to examine other alternatives, and that includes making cuts at 900 Grant Street,” Daniel said, referring to the DPS administrative offices. “We really need to look at alternatives and budget cuts before we raise taxes.”

In northwest Denver, reform and common ground

One of the most used words in the discussion of DPS schools is “reform.” Board members and their votes are often analyzed in terms of whether they further or frustrate the initiatives favored by Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor, now-U.S. Senator Michael Bennet.

Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver and is the only incumbent on the ballot, is often aligned with two other frequent Boasberg opponents on the dissenting side of 4-3 board votes.

But, on the campaign trail, he has occasionally flashed some reform stripes.

Jimenez said he applauds “those reforms where the superintendent and the school board and the administration have worked collaboratively with the community to ensure that parents, that students, community members and business leaders have a voice.

“I was one of the folks who worked very hard on West High School to transform that school into what will open next fall as the most innovative and the most collaborative school in the district…I would say that that is a very successful reform.”

West High School is being phased out. In 2012-13, two new high schools, West College Board and West Generations, will open in its building.

Jimenez and his opponent, Jennifer Draper Carson, have shown some common ground in their philosophies.

In Saturday’s forum appearance, both said they don’t support school vouchers, they do support more old Denver schools receiving a historic designation, and they believe Colorado should opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

And, when asked if they would support a possible city property tax increase for school funding, Jimenez said, “Yes, if we’re very clear about how that money will be put into the classrooms, and how we will spend it.” Draper Carson followed with “Yes, and verbatim what Arturo said.”

There was also little daylight between the two in how they graded Boasberg’s performance; Draper Carson said B-minus, Jimenez said C-plus.

Draper Carson, up against an incumbent, has been emphasizing at every turn the roots she has put down and cultivated in the northwest, highlighting seven years as a district employee or volunteer who worked to foster parent and community engagement at North High School.

“I am very troubled that we’ve got the highest choice-out rates of any sub-district in DPS and that tells me, as a mother, as a community member, as a taxpayer, that we need stronger choices of schools,” said Draper Carson. “We need to strengthen our existing schools, and we need to look a bringing in different schools that may appeal to more of our students.”

Southeast Denver candidates differ in pace of call for change

The race for the southeast Denver seat held by Bruce Hoyt, who is term-limited, features Emily Sirota, who has lived in Denver about four years, against Anne Rowe, who traces her involvement with district schools and community boards back 25 years.

What’s next

  • Monday – Last day to register to vote
  • Oct. 12 – Ballots go out in the mail
  • Oct. 24 – Eight drop-off locations for ballots are open
  • Nov. 1 – Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m.

Learn more

But Sirota, the only board candidate to boast a gubernatorial endorsement – that of her former boss, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer – doesn’t let her shorter time in the area limit her call for change.

Sirota cites the district’s 51.8 percent four-year graduation rate in virtually every appearance.

That, and a high college remediation rate for DPS graduates, are “signs that we are not on the right path, that we have a lot of work to do,” Sirota said. “It’s time we have a school board that will tell the truth about where are, and be honest about our school system.”

Rowe does not see the district in as desperate straits as her opponent.

“The work that has been done over the last five years is showing progress,” she said.

“It’s showing in enrollment, it’s showing in increased achievement … this is not a time to break things apart, to tear things down. This is a time to build. This is a time to stay focused on what’s working.”

Campaign funding reports due next week will provide the first solid information on who is contributing how much and who they’re giving it to.

The 2009 campaign saw one individual, Thomas Gamel, pour in $237,558 to three reform candidates, while five labor unions combined to pitch $103,450 to three candidates backed by the DCTA.

If similar interests dish out the same level of cash in the closing weeks, the relative quiet of the current campaigns could change.

“With the stakes this high, at least the committed interest groups, both establishment and labor, are going to be there,” Ciruli predicted.

However the money plays out, he believes both sides of the philosophical divide in the DPS community may be reluctant to resort to a more confrontational style.

“The anti-reform, or pro-labor forces, I think they overwhelmingly recognize that it was just very polarizing. It upsets a lot of people,” said Ciruli.

“I think the establishment side has similarly said ‘We should be offering calm, we should be offering a continuation, and improvement, and it serves our purpose not to let those folks get too visible’.”

Denver school board candidates and links to their websites

  • At-large/citywide:John Daniel, 54, is a computer systems administrator and resident of the Baker neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Frank Deserino, 49, is a social studies teacher at South High School. Campaign website.
  • Happy Haynes, 58, is director of civic and community engagement for CRL Associates, Inc. and a resident of the Park Hill neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Roger Kilgore, 54, is a water resources engineer and consultant, and a resident of Park Hill. Campaign website.
  • Jacqui Shumway, 52, is a health educator and resident of Park Hill. Campaign website.
  • District 1, Southeast Denver:Anne Rowe, 51, a small business owner who lives in the Cherry Hills Heights neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Emily Sirota, 32, is a social worker who lives in Virginia Village. Campaign website.
  • District 5, Northwest Denver:Jennifer Draper Carson, 42, is an education activist and full-time mom, living in the West Highlands neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Arturo Jimenez, 39, is an immigration attorney who lives in the Highlands neighborhood. He was first elected to the northwest Denver seat in 2007. Campaign website.