DENVER – Election day is more than five months away but the field is already taking shape for three seats to be decided on the Denver Public Schools board in battles likely to be highly funded and hotly contested.
At stake in this year’s election is whether a 4-3 majority backing the reform agenda of Superintendent Tom Boasberg will survive.
Candidates can’t begin circulating nominating petitions until Aug. 3, leaving plenty of time for all three contests to become more crowded. But at least two candidates for each seat already have made public their intentions to run.
The lone incumbent seeking re-election is Arturo Jimenez, bidding for a second four-year term representing Northwest Denver’s District 5. He will be challenged by Jennifer Draper Carson, who was active as a volunteer in his campaign the first time around.
Two more seats will be wide open due to term-limits.
Theresa Peña, who represents the city at-large, and Bruce Hoyt, who represents Southeast Denver or District 1, are stepping down with the conclusion of their second terms.
Peña and Hoyt have typically backed Boasberg’s initiatives while Jimenez frequently votes against them.
Campaign activity in other school districts also is picking up. Lesley Dahlkemper, who runs the public relations firm Schoolhouse Communications, is set to launch her campaign for the Jefferson County school board on Tuesday.
Incumbent wants to retain seat in Northwest Denver
Jimenez, the current board vice president, hosted a gathering Thursday night at a Northwest Denver restaurant that was billed as an “endorser’s reception” and “campaign organization social.”
“I believe now that I’m seen as a voice of reason on the board that can bring different interests and different ideologies to the table,” he said in an interview prior to that event. “I think it’s really important to maintain that voice on the board.”
Jimenez, an immigration attorney, said he wants to see improved facilitation by DPS for parental classroom involvement, and he hopes to see parental involvement become a better-integrated district policy:
“A lot of folks are making decisions about their schools in isolation, and not connected to a regional plan. And that’s really what I would like to see through.”
Carson, a former DPS classroom aide and resource advocate who most recently worked as a consultant for GreatSchools.org, said she is not satisfied with what the district has done to stem the flow of district “choice-outs” and dropouts.
“DPS is not knocking the ball out of the park. I think it’s time to bring in some different models,” she said.
“If you had a really poor-caliber restaurant in your neighborhood and you were told to go eat there three times a day, every day, it wouldn’t be deemed un-American to go open a new restaurant, would it? But that’s the sort of charge being levied at our charter parents.”
Carson also cited “leadership development” as an area of concern, bemoaning what she saw as “the absolute lack of process surrounding that, and planning. I don’t see any planning coming out of (DPS district offices at) 900 Grant, to develop strong pipelines of principals or really, teachers, for that matter.”
Familiar name waging campaign for at-large spot
Happy Haynes, a familiar name in Denver politics from years spent on the Denver City Council, is running for Peña’s at-large seat.
Others campaigning at-large include Roger Kilgore, a Park Hill resident and longtime business consultant.
Haynes resigned her job as DPS’s chief community engagement officer effective Wednesday. She remains supportive of the initiatives advanced under Boasberg’s tenure.
However, Haynes said, “This isn’t about the current superintendent. This is about the kids, and where the district needs to go.
“I think that’s very polarizing, characterizing it as whether you’re for the superintendent or not,” she said. “It’s about the kids and where the district should be headed. We should be focusing on those things, rather than the drama among adults.”
Kilgore said the Haynes name may be known, but not for education.
“Her name recognition is not in education,” Kilgore said. “And I think that’s a liability for her, to go from working for the DPS and the superintendent to a position of oversight. It is an awkward leap.”
Kilgore describes himself as supportive of the district’s strategic plan, the Denver Plan, but added, “There is a lot of flex within the plan, in terms of how you get to where you need to be.”
He said there’s been “unnecessary shock and awe” in some of the reform efforts pursued to date, adding, “I might encourage a more inclusive process.”
At least three more are mulling a run for the at-large seat. Vernon Jones, who ran a close second to board president Nate Easley in the 2009 race to represent Far Northeast Denver, has not ruled out an at-large candidacy.
Reeves Whalen, a Denver attorney who represents clients in complex products liability cases, has assembled an exploratory committee for consideration of an at-large campaign. He said Thursday it is likely he will run.
And Park Hill resident Jacqui Shumway, who also ran as a candidate for Far Northeast Denver in 2009, said while visiting the Jimenez event Thursday evening that she will “most likely” mount an at-large candidacy this year.
In addition, several sources said Emily Sirota, the wife of author and radio talk-show host David Sirota, is considering an at-large run. Emily Sirota did not respond to requests for comment.
A+ Denver co-chair, teacher vying to represent Southeast Denver
Anne Rowe, a founding co-chair of the district advisory group A+ Denver, announced her candidacy to represent Southeast Denver in late March.
Rowe, co-owner and treasurer of RP Publishing Inc., believes the district has been on the right course in recent years.
“There have been some foundations put in place where we can go forward, and we have to move forward with even more rigor,” Rowe said. “I think this board election will determine whether we continue to move forward to create more great education environments for our kids, or we don’t.”
Rowe said she has known Jimenez for several years and recently met one-on-one with board members Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida. They, along with Jimenez, form the trio that has been largely resistant to Boasberg’s reform efforts. Those meetings gave Rowe hope that, if elected, she could work constructively with what has been a vocal board minority.
“I was clear, as were they, about their perspectives,” she said. “I believe in discourse and dialogue, and they suggested that they want discourse and dialogue. And until that doesn’t happen, I have to believe it’s a possibility.”
Rowe will have competition from Frank Deserino, a South High School teacher who unsuccessfully challenged Hoyt four years ago. Deserino said that, if he wins, he’ll resign his DPS teaching job at the end of the 2011-12 school year to avoid creating a conflict of interest. But he believes the board needs a teacher’s perspective.
“It’s very frustrating that someone who does not understand what goes on in the classroom, and what these kids need, dictates policies and has no real connection,” he said. “It’s almost like two mutually exclusive ideologies.”
He added, “What’s compelling me to run again is that, although I’m in favor of the Denver Plan and reform, it needs to be done as a more thoughtful and measured response from someone who actually does the work.”
Predicting a low turnout
Pollster Floyd Ciruli said he expects large cash infusions coming into the race from organized labor and others. But, he said, “My sense is that it will be a relatively low turnout.”
A recent Ciruli Associates Poll showed that fewer than one third – 29 percent – of those questioned had a positive view of DPS’s performance. Ciruli suspects this may mean low levels of public enthusiasm for candidates.
“It is a very, very off-year election and, essentially, the major stakeholders will have inordinate power – the unions, the reform movement and the editorial page of the Denver Post,” he said.
“I think it’ll be a race in which those stakeholders will have a lot of power and I also suspect that, to get the word out, it will take some resources.”
That seems a safe bet, based on the most recent DPS board campaigns.
In the 2009 election, one donor, businessman Thomas W. Gamel, contributed more than $237,500 to three candidates, including $144,350 to successful at-large candidate Mary Seawell. And five labor unions combined to donate $103,450 to three candidates backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
In response to that spending, State Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, sponsored a bill in the 2010 legislative session that would have set spending limits in school board and Regional Transportation District races.
The bill, which would have imposed a $2,500 individual contribution limit and a $5,000 limit on contributions from small-donor committees, failed.