Denver school board candidate Arturo Jimenez is being challenged for claiming he paved the way for West Denver Preparatory charter schools’ entry into northwest Denver – despite having voted repeatedly against proposed locations for the school.
Jimenez, the incumbent representative for northwest Denver’s District 5, made his remarks Monday night during a candidate forum at the Highland campus of West Denver Prep, located in the renovated 1913 Wing of North High School.
“I’m very proud also to be the person who helped usher West Denver Prep into north Denver, and also the person who thought of putting them in this building,” said Jimenez, wrapping up his opening introduction.
Listening to Jimenez from the back of the room, Alex Ooms, the founding board chair of West Denver Prep, was aghast.
“For Arturo to claim that he ushered WDP into northwest Denver is the height of hypocrisy,” Ooms, who is supporting Jimenez’s opponent Jennifer Draper Carson, wrote in an email.
“No person in Denver tried harder to block these schools. There are now hundreds of parents in the northwest trusting their kids to WDP, and Arturo did not believe that families should have that choice.”
West Denver Prep is regarded as a success story among Denver charter schools and in Denver Public Schools overall. Four of the seven DPS schools with the highest growth ratings on 2011 state CSAP scores are West Denver Prep schools; the two in Jimenez’s district rank sixth and seventh.
Also, despite poverty rates of more than 90 percent, West Denver Prep’s two northwest campuses – Highland and Lake, at Lake Middle School – were among the top seven DPS schools in the district’s latest School Performance Framework rankings.
The Highland campus opened in August 2010 at the old Emerson School building with just a sixth grade. This year, a seventh grade has been added and the school has moved into North, a few blocks from its first home.
Draper Carson, the lone candidate challenging Jimenez for his school board seat, quickly challenged her opponent’s version of West Denver Prep’s entry into northwest Denver.
“I’m very thankful that they’re here,” she said during the forum. “And I’m very curious why my fellow candidate would have voted against placing those schools in our quadrant.”
After Monday’s forum, Chris Gibbons, chief executive officer of West Denver Prep and a co-host for the event, said Jimenez was the first person to approach him about putting a campus of the charter network in the underutilized North High School.
However, Gibbons said that when a proposal to put West Denver Prep at Emerson came up for a board vote in January 2010, Jimenez was in a three-member minority voting against it. Jimenez, about six weeks earlier, had also voted against placing another West Denver Prep campus at Lake Middle School.
In fact, Jimenez voted against putting West Denver Prep at Lake on two different occasions.
Because the first vote was taken Nov. 30, 2009, when two newly elected board members had not yet been sworn in, Jimenez asked that a second vote be taken. His motion to reconsider West Denver Prep at Lake was defeated Dec. 17, 2009 on a 4-3 vote.
Asked after the forum if he believes Jimenez has been supportive of West Denver Prep, Gibbons declined comment.
‘Maybe he was tired and he misspoke on that’
Several DPS school board candidate forums have lacked extensive charges and counter charges between candidates. But Monday, it was clear Jimenez heard Draper Carson’s comment about his “no” votes on West Denver Prep locations in the area.
“Now it’s starting to get political up here, and people are getting a little chippy,” Jimenez told the audience.
But it wasn’t until the forum ended that he talked in detail about his West Denver Prep votes.
In an interview, Jimenez said the proposal to put one West Denver Prep at Lake and another at Emerson was presented over his objections as a package deal.
Jimenez wanted one West Denver Prep in the northwest and preferred to see the second at the former Del Pueblo Elementary, about four miles southeast of Lake and on the other side of Interstate 25.
“The district decided at the last minute to force in two, and it came out of nowhere, Jimenez said.
“The (board) president and the district set it up very politically and said ‘We’re going to put one in at Lake whether you like it or not.’ And I said ‘Fine, we’ll vote on it; let me vote on one, and let me vote on the other.’ And they said, ‘No, we’re going to force you to vote on both at the same time’.”
Jimenez added, “So I said ‘Fine. You guys want to play politics? I’m not a career politician. I care about the kids and I care about the community, so I’m going to vote no and you guys are going to have to explain why you’re forcing that school into the community, without having their consent and without having their participation.”
However, there is no record of a board vote in which the location of the two West Denver Prep campuses are linked.
Wednesday, after reviewing Jimenez’s voting record on West Denver Prep, campaign manager Dave Sabados said, “Maybe he was tired and he misspoke on that. It was a long day and a hot forum … He misspoke about technical details concerning a convoluted process from several years ago.”
Sabados added, “What his statements at that time reflect is that he voted against placing West Denver Prep … at Lake, because of concerns about capacity issues, which is showing to be true. The building is about to be over capacity.”
Gibbons, the West Denver Prep CEO, said the school’s Lake campus is currently at an enrollment of 242 – over its projected 220. But he said he does not have long-term concerns about its capacity.
As for the Jimenez vote against placing West Denver Prep at Emerson, Sabados said, “There were several unresolved questions, such as where it would end up permanently, if the building (the renovated 1913 Wing at North that was to be its eventual home) would be ready, and issues of that nature.”
Sabados pointed out Jimenez voted to approve the actual West Denver Prep charters – separate votes from those on location – and worked to secure $2 million in bond funds to connect electricity, heat and water to North’s 1913 Wing.
Charges from both sides on the issue
At-large board member Theresa Peña, who was the board president during the West Denver Prep location votes, did not attend Monday’s forum. But she had a strong opinion on Jimenez taking credit for West Denver Prep’s arrival in northwest Denver.
“That is an outrageous claim and an outright lie,” said Peña, who is endorsing Draper Carson. “Just look at his voting record. He voted against the two West Denver Preps in northwest Denver, when it went to Lake and when it went to Emerson.”
“He’s never been a supporter in an authentic way,” she said. “He has been a supporter in a politically expedient way.”
Sabados, Jimenez’s campaign manager, called it “sad, but not surprising, to see an accusation like this lobbed by somebody who is raising money for our opponent.”
Peña was one of several people who immediately recalled a speech Jimenez gave at the board meeting when he voted against locating West Denver Prep at Emerson. He spoke in English and in Spanish that night, but his remarks were not the same in both languages.
Although in Spanish he called West Denver Prep “a good school,” he said parents and students in the neighborhood preferred a two-language school.
Also in Spanish, he said, “We want our children, too, to be leaders and not just engineers who upon graduation from college build bomb components meant to destroy while others make the key decisions for us out in the world. Our children also deserve to make decisions. And our dream is that we are not this nation’s beasts of burden, especially when we have gone to college.”
The speech was blasted in a Denver Post column headlined “Dedicated to blocking achievement.”
Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, co-sponsor of Monday’s forum, said he is mystified by Jimenez’s stance on West Denver Prep.
“Indeed, he did start those conversations” about locating the charter at North, said Martinez. “And then, he did a 180. He flipped completely. He told parents he wasn’t going to support them anywhere, in Highland or Lake.
“It’s kind of difficult to pin him down,” added Martinez, who is supporting Draper Carson. “He was for them, and then he was completely against them, and then he was for them. I’m not sure where he stands, and I‘m not sure where he’s going to stand two months from now.”
Sabados said there should be no doubt where Jimenez stands:
“Arturo voted for every West Denver Prep school in north and west Denver, worked with North High School to find West Denver Prep a home, and personally found the $2 million dollars in savings from the $34 million renovation bond money to connect the heat, water and electricity to the building West Denver Prep now occupies.”