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Six takeaways from interviews with finalists for vacant Denver board seat

Ezekiel Brown donned a graduation cap at a rally about the far northeast turnaround in 2011.
Ezekiel Brown donned a graduation cap at a rally about the far northeast turnaround in 2011.
Andy Cross/Denver Post

On Tuesday, the Denver school board is set to appoint a new board member to represent northeast Denver. The seat was previously held by Landri Taylor, who resigned in February.

Twenty-two candidates initially applied for the position representing Denver Public Schools District 4. The board narrowed the field last month to 10 finalists. One of them, Priya Burkett, has since withdrawn her application, citing other commitments.

The board interviewed the nine remaining finalists Thursday night. Each candidate had 10 minutes to answer questions. Here are our six takeaways from that process:

Board members wanted to know if candidates would ever vote to close a school.

They pointedly asked the question of four of the nine candidates: DPS teachers Arnetta Koger and Dexter Korto, parent MiDian Holmes and attorney Jennifer Bacon, who is board chair of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, an organization that has been critical of some district reform policies.

All four said yes, they would be willing to shutter a low-performing school.

Koger seemed the most hesitant, saying there would have to be “extreme circumstances.” Korto said he’d support closing “habitually underperforming” schools. Bacon said she’d be in favor of taking other steps before resorting to closure but that she’d consider it if necessary.

Holmes, who graduated from the now-closed Montbello High School, said she doesn’t like the term “closure,” preferring to use “phase-out” or “modify.” When the board voted in 2010 to close Montbello and replace it with three new schools, Holmes said she heard concerns from classmates and neighbors about traditions being lost.

“My concern was, I don’t care what you call the school, you have to give students the opportunity to succeed,” she said.

On a scale of low to high, all nine candidates rated the state of DPS “medium-high.”

All nine said DPS is on the right track but has room for serious improvement. Several highlighted the district’s robust school choice system and a recent move to give school leaders more autonomy as important innovations that have put DPS on the national map.

But candidates pointed to DPS’s wide achievement gaps between poor and wealthy students — and between white and minority students — as a problem that needs solving.

DPS parent Jo-Nell Herndon called the situation “frightening.” She said the district should increase funding for social and emotional supports for students, and should better support teachers who work in high-needs school so they don’t get burned out. When asked if she’d be willing to cut funding to other programs to pay for those services, Herndon said yes.

The candidates agreed that a board member’s role is to focus on district policy and oversight, not on fixing problems at individual schools.

Each candidate interview started the same way: with board president Anne Rowe asking the candidates to explain their philosophy on school board governance — a topic the candidates were also asked to address in the 11-question questionnaires they filled out.

The candidates were fairly consistent in their answers, emphasizing that board members should represent their constituencies, make policy decisions and evaluate those policies.

“Our role is to stand on the balcony and see themes and patterns,” said Rachele Espiritu, a DPS parent who works in behavioral health. A board member should not “be on the dance floor,” she said.

Velvia Garner, who is the great-grandmother of a current DPS student and previously worked in youth corrections, said the board needs to “create an environment for meaningful work.”

The board was concerned with how candidates would handle making tough decisions.

District 4 is the most racially diverse school board district in DPS and it includes low-income, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods. Given that diversity, most candidates said it wouldn’t be realistic for the board to make decisions that please everybody.

Makisha Boothe, a DPS employee who told Chalkbeat that she resigned her position with the district’s innovation lab effective June 30 to become a consultant, said she would seek to meet with key stakeholders early “so that when times get tough, there’s a relationship there.”

Bacon said she’d focus on being consistent in what she says.

Korto said it’s important to listen to what people want, communicate the realities of what’s possible and then come to a compromise.

“If a compromise is not in favor of all parties, I am very sure that the compromise will be in the best interest of students,” he said.

Board members were interested in assessing candidates’ electability and willingness to campaign for the seat in the fall of 2017, when the current term will end.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez pushed Holmes to explain a previous response in which she indicated that if appointed, she was unsure if she’d run for the seat in 2017.

Holmes said she answered that way so as not to assume the will of the voters.

“I want to make sure the district is comfortable with me,” she said. “If that fit does work, I am in it to win it.”

Board member Lisa Flores questioned whether Espiritu having lived in Denver for only three years would put off some voters. Espiritu said her newness makes her a “neutral party” and expressed confidence in her ability to meet community leaders and run a campaign.

Far northeast Denver, home of the district’s most ambitious and controversial turnaround efforts, was mentioned more often than other parts of District 4, both in board members’ questions and candidates’ responses.

Asked about the success of the turnaround, Adrienne Tate, a DPS parent who previously worked for Teach for America, said the best thing the board can do is to talk to the community, who knows what it wants and doesn’t want.

She called the turnaround results “mixed” and said the district should figure out what’s working in schools that have shown success and replicate it in those that are still struggling.

Teachers Koger and Korto said they’ve seen the effects of turnaround firsthand — and they can be long-lasting and difficult.

Boothe said it’s time for a new vision for the far northeast that includes steps to build teacher capacity and offers a variety of school types in the neighborhood.

“There’s some community anxiety about, is there going to be a DSST everywhere?” she said, referring to the Denver-based charter school network that plans to have 22 schools by 2024-25. “DSST is great model but it’s not for everyone.”

For more, read the candidates’ completed questionnaires.

Rodriguez also requested the candidates notify the board liaison of anything in their background that might embarrass the board if they were to be appointed.

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