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Nate Easley speaks to students about scholarship opportunities in 2015.

Nate Easley speaks to students about scholarship opportunities in 2015.

Former Denver school board president Nate Easley may run again for an open seat

One-time Denver school board president Nate Easley, who stepped down from the board in 2013, said he is strongly considering running again this fall.

Easley is so serious about the prospect that he’s leaving his job to avoid what could be a conflict of interest. For more than a year, he has been CEO of RootED, an education-focused philanthropic collective. The organization, formerly called Blue School Partners, has given grants to several Denver charter school networks and “innovation zones,” which allow district-run schools to have charter-like freedoms.

Easley resigned from the school board in 2013 to avoid another conflict of interest when he became head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which helps Denver Public Schools students from low-income families attend college. But he believes his work on the school board, which is a volunteer position, is not yet done.

“People think I lost my mind, leaving a healthy organization to go on to the unknown,” Easley said. “I feel really strongly this is the right thing to do.”

Three seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in November. The competition for at least two of those seats is wide open because term limits bar the current members from running again. The third seat is held by board treasurer Lisa Flores, who did not return messages inquiring whether she plans to run for re-election.

If Easley runs, it will be for the at-large seat currently held by Happy Haynes, who is term limited. At-large members represent the city as a whole, and campaigns for those seats tend to be more expensive because there is a lot of ground to cover. The winning candidate in the last at-large race in 2017, board vice president Barbara O’Brien, raised more than $100,000 herself, not counting the money outside organizations poured into her race.

Easley would face Tay Anderson, a recent Denver Public Schools graduate who ran unsuccessfully in 2017. No other candidates have announced.

The election is sure to be a hotly contested, big-money affair as backers of the district’s controversial reform efforts — such as closing low-performing schools and expanding charter schools — battle for control of the board against those who argue those reforms have “privatized” public education and had an outsized negative impact on students of color, who make up most of Denver Public Schools’ approximately 93,000 students.

For the past 15 years, the majority of Denver school board members have favored the district’s reforms. But on the heels of a three-day teacher strike earlier this month, those who want to change the district’s direction are organizing to “flip the board” in November.

Some flippers have already been critical of a possible Easley run. When he served on the board from November 2009 to January 2013, Easley was part of the board majority in favor of the district’s reforms. That was a surprise to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which helped get him elected. The teachers union opposes many of the district’s reforms, and there was disappointment among its members due to what they perceived as a bait-and-switch by Easley.

Easley doesn’t outright reject the reform label, and he said he doesn’t regret some of his more controversial votes. In 2010, he voted to close his alma mater, Montbello High School, in far northeast Denver. While he stands by the decision to close a school he said was not serving students well, he also noted assurances he received at the time — including that the community pride derived from the school would not be dampened — have not been kept.

“Without being apologetic about what we’ve done so far, we can do better and we have to do better,” said Easley, who previously represented northeast Denver on the board.

Easley has not yet filed the paperwork to run for the board this year or launched an official campaign. He said his decision partly hinges on getting promises of financial support from donors.

Easley left the Denver Scholarship Foundation in 2017 to help found RootED. Some of RootED’s funding comes from a national group called The City Fund, whose aim is to push for the expansion of charter schools and district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. Easley’s two sons attend district-run schools that are part of one of Denver’s “innovation zones.”

Mary Seawell, who served previously on the school board with Easley and is a member of RootED’s board of directors, said Easley’s resignation happened quickly and RootED is still figuring out its next steps. Seawell is a senior vice president at the Gates Family Foundation, based in Denver. (The Gates Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Easley said he’s not worried about getting another paying job. What he is worried about, he said, is the possibility of Denver Public Schools moving “backwards.”

“People are going to box me up and they’re going to say, ‘That guy who was on the board who’s running again, he works for the man and wants to privatize,’” he said. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth. I believe in public education. I’ve worked in it my entire life.”