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DPS board finalists tackle creationism

Correction: This story was updated Friday morning to fix an error regarding how sitting board members ranked MiDian Holmes. No board member ranked her as first choice. EdNews regrets the error. 

Two people vying for a seat on the Denver school board representing Northeast Denver said Wednesday that they support the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Antwan Jefferson, a former teacher at Montbello High School who now teaches in the urban education program at the University of Colorado-Denver, and MiDian Holmes, head of Denver chapter of Stand for Children, both held up “yes” signs when asked if they would support the teaching of creationism during a candidate forum Wednesday evening at Smiley Middle School. Jefferson also said he supported the teaching of evolution.

One sitting DPS board member listed Holmes as a second choice; two board members listed her as their third choice to fill the

MiDian Holmes

MiDian Holmes

District 4 seat, according to anonymous ballots reviewed by EdNews. Three board members listed Jefferson as their second choice to fill the vacant seat.

“To be honest, I’m a mom who really cares about giving kids the public education they need,” Holmes said Thursday. “I am new to the political world. I was thrown off by that question. I am a faithful person, but I do believe a strong line should be drawn between private faith and public education.” (Watch the video by clicking on the agenda for the Feb. 20 meeting and scrolling to the “video” link).

However, the so-called “lightning round,” held in a game-show type format with candidates seated in a row facing the audience, had candidates holding up “yes” and “no” signs as they were barraged with provocative questions by the host. The finalists for the seat were given no advance warning.

Antwan Jefferson

Antwan Jefferson

Jefferson also held up a “yes” sign when asked if he would support the teaching of evolution, while Sean Bradley, legislative director for the American Federation for Children, and Lisa Roy,  executive director of the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation, held up a “no” sign. Two sitting DPS board members listed Roy as their second choice.

Jefferson said Thursday he believes education is about broadening students’ knowledge base and educating them about how different people view the world, not “promoting an agenda.” Therefore, students should know about both creationism and evolution so they can understand the political debates over both and where they stand on the issues.

“I don’t think we should … perpetuate ignorant students by not giving them access to information” he said. “We can leave religious proselytizing to religious schools.”

Meanwhile, Bradley also held up a “yes” sign when asked about support of vouchers, which allow public school students to attend private schools using taxpayer funds. One DPS board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill Easley’s seat. Holmes held up her sign part way. Bradley could not be reached for comment. One sitting board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill the seat.

Holmes said while vouchers might make sense in some contexts, they don’t “really have a place in a district like Denver.”

“We have such a strong system of public school choice,” Holmes said. “If I am selected for this seat, my goal is for parents like me to have a choice to send their kids to any public school that best meets their needs.”

In a second lightning round, all nine candidates seemed to indicate they supported bilingual education; that busing should be provided for gifted and talented students and those who attend magnet schools; and that physical education should be mandated in light of the nation’s obesity epidemic.

On the controversial topic of co-locating more than one school or program in a single building, candidates Mary Sam, a retired DPS teacher, and Vernon Jones Jr., an assistant principal at Manual High School, held up “no” signs, while Fred Franko, founder of the Out-of-School Time Network, Jefferson (and possibly others) kept their signs on their laps.

As for whether the district’s limited resources should be spent to air condition all Denver schools, only Sam voted “no” while the remainder voted “yes.”

When asked if another school should be built in Stapleton even though there is space at other DPS schools, Holmes, Hansen and Roy held up “yes” signs. Jefferson, Bradley, Sam and Jones held up a “no” sign. Franko and Taylor kept their signs down.

Finally, candidates were asked whether they supported Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Sam was the only candidate to hold up a “no” sign. Franko and Jefferson kept their signs down and the others held up “yes” signs.

Jefferson said he thought the question was “unnecessarily reductionist.” Jefferson said if the question was about Boasberg’s support of the rapid growth of charter schools in District 4 he would have held up a “no” sign. If the question was about Boasberg’s support of doing what needs to be done to turn around low-performing schools, he would have voted “yes.”

“To say, ‘Do you support the superintendent?’ insults the intelligence of the public,” Jefferson said.

By the middle of next month, the board must fill the vacant seat to meet a 60-day limit set by the state. If the six current board members cannot agree on a replacement, board President Mary Seawell has the authority to make an appointment. Seawell has said she’ll pick that person from among the nine finalists.

The new board member, however chosen, will have to run in next November’s election if he or she wants to serve a full four-year term.

The seat is viewed as pivotal to the future direction of DPS since the board is typically divided between those members who are generally more supportive of the superintendent and current reforms – including Seawell – and those who are concerned about improving quality at neighborhood schools – not just charters – and who question how well the district is educating growing numbers of English language learners.

None of the nine finalists are Latino, which prompted concerns from the Colorado Latino Forum, which asked the board to reopen the process to fill the seat. Board members Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan publicly backed the forum’s request to reopen the process even though neither of them listed Hispanic candidates among their choices for the board seat, according to anonymous tally sheets reviewed by EdNews.

EdNews will post the video from Wednesday’s forum as soon as it’s available.