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Dynamics fluid in DPS at-large race

Competition is ratcheting up for the at-large seat on the Denver Public Schools board, with one additional candidate joining the field and a well-known politician eying the race.

Manual High School administrator Vernon Jones said Thursday he will enter the contest, and former state Sen. Ken Gordon said he’s considering it. Former city council member Happy Haynes, who has close ties to the DPS administration and Mayor-elect Michael Hancock, and Park Hill business consultant Roger Kilgore are in already.

Denver pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli said Gordon could bring political savvy and name recognition to the race and be a strong candidate for union interests. Ciruli also said it’s possible the other candidates could split voters who support current DPS school reform policies.

Gordon told Education News Colorado Friday that he’s looking at the race, but “I have not made a decision.” He added that he thinks he needs to decide “sooner rather than later.”

A lawyer, Gordon was elected in 1992 to the Colorado House, where he served as minority leader. He later served in the Senate, where he was majority leader before being term-limited in 2008. He represented districts in far southeast Denver. In 2006 he narrowly lost the secretary of state race to Republican Mike Coffman, now a congressman. Observers expect he would have labor backing in a board race.

Jones said Thursday he is running for the seat being vacated by the term-limited Theresa Peña. He’s a Manual High School administrator who this fall will become director of community engagement. In 2009 Jones narrowly lost the District 4 seat in Far Northeast Denver to current board president Nate Easley.

Ciruli thinks a Gordon candidacy would change the contest’s dynamics.

“Where the unions have mostly failed to produce in their efforts to get control of the board, Ken would be a really credible candidate,” he said.

Past candidates “have walked into it without some name ID, or some natural talent or career that lends themselves to it, and so consequently they have spent a lot of money and only had limited success,” said Ciruli. Labor interests “have won a few seats, but the people they’ve elected have not been able to carry the day.”

By contrast, he said, “Gordon comes in with a pretty good name ID, lots of credibility in the Democratic Party and a good facility at communication. Ken would potentially get all the labor vote and support. He would be formidable.”

Ciruli also said if Haynes, Jones, and possibly Kilgore were viewed by voters as more reform-minded, they could split that vote and create the potential for a successful run by Gordon.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said, “This is a personal decision. Ken Gordon needs to make that decision. We would definitely welcome the involvement.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the district’s reform agenda currently enjoy the support of a 4-3 board majority, and the Nov. 1 election is seen as a crossroads for his administration.

District 2 board member Andrea Merida, a frequent critic of current district policies, took time out from a yard sale Friday to discuss a potential Gordon candidacy.

“He’s being very coy with me as well, and that’s okay,” said Merida.

“If he threw in, I think he gets right to the core of things, and he’s not going to be swayed, he’s not going to be bullied,” she added. “He would be an incredibly compelling candidate. … I would be incredibly honored to serve with him. And I’m sure he’d be teaching me a few things.”

Merida also had positive remarks about Jones, who in his previous campaign was seen as a supporter of the Boasberg reform agenda.

In 2009, Merida said, “Vernon and I were supposedly in different camps. But, I have grown to have a lot of respect for Vernon. He has his heart in the right place. I don’t know many people who are as dedicated to the Northeast community, and, really, all the kids in Denver, be they African-American, Latino, or whatever.”

She was non-committal on whom she might support. “It would be a tough call. It would come down to the viability of the campaigns,” said Merida, “because we want to win.”

Peña declined to comment publicly on the contest to replace her but did offer thoughts on what she feels is at stake.

“I would hope the Denver electorate would look at these three or four candidates, and ask, do they have an understanding of the Denver Plan?” she said. “Do they understand the strategies we’re using to close the achievement gap, to lower the dropout rate, and do they believe in the leadership of Tom Boasberg to execute that plan?

“I believe in all the above, and I believe I have three colleagues who don’t,” referring to Merida and members Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan. “My hope would be that the Denver community understands that firing the superintendent and starting over is not only harmful to kids and teachers, but it creates a school district that would be mediocre for the next generation of kids.

“If you get a new board, and they don’t like the plans for reform and fire this superintendent, that only harms the teachers and students.”

She hopes the election will end the current 4-3 split on the board.

“You need people on the board who can work together, because working in a 4-3 environment has tarnished the reputation of the Denver school board,” she said. “That’s harmful, because if this district wants to go for a bond or mill levy in a few years, you don’t want the district (board) to be a distraction. For me, a 4-3 vote is untenable.”

The at-large seat is one of three on the ballot this fall. Incumbent Jiminez in District 5 (northwest Denver) is seeking a second term and is being challenged by Jennifer Draper Carson. Bruce Hoyt is term-limited in District 1. Announced candidates so far in the southeast Denver district are Frank Deserino, Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota.

Jimenez wouldn’t comment on specific candidates but said, “I can say that I am very encouraged. I think the more candidates that are interested, the better the choices that Denver voters have. I’m not going to take a position either way on any of the individuals. But I think this is good news, to have a good, diverse slate of candidates.”