Update: On July 18, Kristi Leech dropped out of the race.
A Denver mother and former nurse, whose experience advocating for her own son convinced her of the need for more mental health professionals in public schools, is running to represent southeast Denver on the school board.
Kristi Leech is a political newcomer who left her job to help provide more support in school for her oldest son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and just finished fourth grade. When her son was in kindergarten and first grade, his school did not have a psychologist at all. It does now, but this past year was the first that the psychologist was full-time.
If elected, Leech said she’d push Denver Public Schools to focus more on teaching social and emotional skills, which she said would benefit all students, not just those facing challenges.
To pay for it, she said the district should “take the money we do have in DPS and wipe the slate and say, ‘What are our priorities? What are we hearing from the community is priority No. 1?’”
Leech is running for the seat held by board President Anne Rowe, who is barred by term limits from running for re-election.
Three other candidates are also running for that seat: Scott Baldermann, a father who was formerly president of the parent-teacher association at his children’s school; Diana Romero Campbell, president of local organization Scholars Unlimited, which provides after-school and summer learning programs; and Radhika Nath, a mother who has a doctorate in public policy and works in health care.
Leech said she aligns herself with groups who want to “flip the board” in November and change the direction of the district. She doesn’t think Denver needs more independently run charter schools, and she believes all schools should serve neighborhood students first.
Leech also has concerns about “co-locating” two or more schools in the same building, as has been the district’s practice, and she opposes closing or replacing struggling schools. Instead, she said the district should have a “rescue team” that could go in and assess why a low-performing school is falling short and offer extra funding and support. The district already provides extra money to struggling schools, but Leech thinks it could do more.
“Instead of closing them, let’s go in and see if we can fix that problem,” she said.
Leech has not served on any districtwide committees or been closely involved with district policymaking. But she said one of the factors motivating her to run for school board was her experience raising money for her children’s school, including as the organizer of the Asbury Elementary silent auction for the past three years. She said she’s dismayed that the proceeds are often spent on essentials such as teachers, teachers aides, and classroom supplies.
One year, she said Asbury spent the money to hire a third kindergarten teacher, to break what would have been classes of 27 students into more manageable sizes.
“I did a lot of tours at Asbury [for parents of prospective students],” Leech said. “Every parent, their first question was, ‘How big are the classes?’ So obviously, this is important to the community. If this is so important to the community, why aren’t we doing it?”
Leech attributes it to a lack of community engagement by the school board. One of her ideas is to appoint a parent and a teacher at each school as conduits to the board. She envisions they’d meet with their elected board representative every month or two about issues and solutions.
“Making decisions in a bubble at the top of the hill has not served our kids,” Leech said.
Part of what Leech hopes will differentiate her from her competitors in the school board race is her experience as a parent of a child with special needs. She said she knows what it’s like to get daily phone calls from school staff about incidents that happened during the day, or to be told that she must come along on a field trip if her child wants to go, too. Her son does not receive special education services, though Leech said she plans to request them next year.
On her website, Leech says one of her main focuses as a board member would be to “ensure that all students in DPS are being accommodated to support their unique learning needs,” including by closely monitoring the distribution of resources “to be sure that it is equitable.”
“Academic success of all students depends on the support of many people – parents, teachers, administrators, and community members,” her website says. “When children feel safe and supported, they are free to learn and grow.”
In addition to the open seat in southeast Denver, two other seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs in November. No incumbents are running.
Candidates must file at least 67 days before the election, which means candidates could join the race as late as August. Thus far, three candidates are vying for the seat representing northwest Denver. It is currently held by Lisa Flores, who is not running for re-election.
Three different candidates are competing for the at-large seat currently held by Happy Haynes, who is also barred by term limits from running again.