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O’Brien, Kiley and Poston argue conflict of interest, Amendment 66

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Denver city-wide school board candidates Michael Kiley, Barbara O’Brien and Joan Poston wrangled over issues ranging from teacher evaluations, last year’s bond and mill levy to candidates’ conflict of interest on Thursday night.

“We’re the envy of the country,” said O’Brien at the end of the heated debate. “Other communities wish they had the love for their education system we have.”

The debate was the second in a series sponsored by A+ Denver, EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online. He also posed a few questions of his own.

Kiley took the opportunity to emphasize his commitment to community engagement, saying change can’t come from outside.

“Any change to a school has to come from the community,” he said. Kiley also attacked O’Brien’s 2003 support of vouchers.

O’Brien emphasized that she does not currently support vouchers and that the 2003 program was a pilot.

“I oppose vouchers and I can’t conceive that as a board, we’ll have to deal with that,” said O’Brien.

Besides, she said, “Denver has become a district of choice.”

Poston, who was a late entry in the race, highlighted her frustration with previous school boards and her desire to change the culture.

“I went to the board expecting a response and didn’t get it,” Poston said, referring to a petition she made in 2006 for installing cooling systems.

Here are some of the most discussed topics of the debate:

Conflict of interest

O’Brien’s previous involvement with the school district through her non-profit organization Get Smart Schools, which works with schools with high levels of low-income students, prompted some of the most heated back and forth in the debate.

Kiley said it represented a conflict of interest and would prevent her from dealing with all schools equally.

“So now if she’s voting for a given school, she’s got an interest in the school [she works with] but the community has an interest in the neighborhood school,” said Kiley. “The board needs to answer to the community.”

O’Brien said she had spoken with the school district lawyer and that it did not represent a conflict of interest except in “1 percent of decisions.”

Kiley suggested it was not a disinterested assessment, saying that “the DPS lawyer will work for you if you’re on the board.” He emphasized that he would be an independent voice on the board.

“The distinction is that I don’t run in a certain political circle,” said Kiley. “I’m not part of a political machine.”

O’Brien said she was happy to talk about her non-profit and that she was proud of her work. The school board needs “people who have real world experience,” O’Brien argued.

She praised Kiley’s work at his children’s schools but said she had a broader range of experience.

Amendment 66

Not all candidates supported the proposed tax increase which would alter the state’s school finance policies as well as raise $950 million in tax dollars for education.

Poston opposed the amendment, saying it would take control of the budget out of the hands of the community and the district and place it in the hands of the state.

“That’s another level away from the neighborhood,” she said.

“But, Joan, most of our money already comes from the state,” O’Brien countered. O’Brien said she supports the tax measure, citing the additional funds it would bring to Denver students.

Kiley supported the amendment, saying “I think it makes some good structural changes.” But, he said, for it to be effective, the community would have to be able to trust the school board’s judgement in the administration of the funds.

Bond and mill levy

Last year’s bond and mill levy remained a divisive issue in this debate, as candidates argued over district accountability and community engagement.

Kiley, who supported the mill levy but not the bond, said that he was in favor of the mill levy in part because of the funding for early childhood education. But he was concerned about a lack of accountability for the bond money.

“My concerns [on the bond] were that there were very vague areas of spending,” Kiley said. He said his fears were realized when the district purchased a new administration building, using funds from the bond.

O’Brien countered that the new administration building, which is at 1860 Lincoln St., was paid for by selling off other district properties. She also said that the bond paid for classroom space for the early childhood education Kiley supported.

“I think it’s really important not to create confusion where there’s transparency,” O’Brien said. “You don’t try to withhold $466 million in physical improvements from our kids.”

Teacher evaluations

All three candidates supported SB-191 but for different reasons. The bill created a new system of teacher evaluation and replaced forced placement, where teachers could be placed in schools by their district, without the agreement of either the teacher or the school’s principal. SB-191 instituted the practice of mutual consent, by which both the principal and the teacher would have to agree on the the placement.

Poston, who said she is a staunch supporter of increased accountability, said there would be no need for forced placement if teachers performed at a high enough level.

“If you get good evaluations, you won’t have forced placement,” Poston said.

O’Brien supported mutual consent, saying that principals could not be held accountable for school performance if they can’t be in control of hiring.

“If you’re going to hold someone accountable, they have to have control over who they hire,” said O’Brien.

Kiley was ambivalent about the merits of mutual consent but supported the bill overall. The problem, he said, was in the district’s leadership.

“Forced placement isn’t in the interest of kids, but mutual consent creates its own problems,” Kiley said. Ultimately, “we need a different kind of administration.”

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