The five applicants to fill a vacancy on the Denver school board answered questions about school budgeting, school choice, and what they’d bring to the board Monday at a forum for residents of northwest Denver, the region they would represent if selected.
The vacancy was created by the resignation of board member Brad Laurvick, who was elected in 2019 but will step down next month when he moves from Denver for his job.
The seven remaining board members are set to vote June 9 to appoint one of the five applicants to serve the last 17 months of Laurvick’s term. Monday’s community forum was the first opportunity for residents to hear from the applicants, who include two former Denver Public Schools teachers and a current principal supervisor for a Denver charter school network.
Here’s what the five applicants had to say Monday.
Julie Bañuelos, a former Denver Public Schools bilingual teacher, said she applied to fill the vacancy because she understands the history of the district and how its policies have impacted students, especially those from working-class families. “I feel DPS continually underrepresents my community,” Bañuelos said. “The change that has been created has really exacerbated some very discriminating situations for our students that are most marginalized.”
Leonard “Leo” Darnell, who is an assistant dean at the University of Colorado Denver and leads a mentoring program for high school students interested in architecture and construction, said he has expertise with budgets that would be helpful to the board. Darnell said he wants to find ways to support teachers and avoid consolidating schools because of declining student enrollment. “I think there are better solutions out there than consolidation,” he said.
David Diaz, who worked as a math teacher in Denver before opening a personal training studio, said he applied because he believes students need a different approach post-pandemic. “They need a safe environment,” said Diaz, who has three daughters in Denver schools and whose wife is a teacher at Lake Middle School. “We need policy to make sure we can help them out with their social emotional needs first and foremost. It’s time to pivot.”
Adeel Khan, who was the founding principal of a Denver charter high school and now manages principals for the DSST charter network, said he wants to take what he learned as a school leader during the pandemic and apply it districtwide. “We have students who are lost in school,” Khan said. “We need to provide the resources our schools need to provide the appropriate support and mental health to our students.”
Charmaine Lindsay, an attorney who specializes in family law, said she has years of experience with Denver Public Schools as a mother and grandmother. She said she saw how her son’s friends of color would get disciplined and suspended more than white students. A trained mediator, Lindsay said she believes in restorative justice. “I want to try to bring those kind of solutions as opposed to just suspending kids in the schools,” she said.
Audience members submitted questions on index cards, and a district staff member read selected questions aloud. Asked her opinion on Denver’s cultivation of a variety of school models, including publicly funded but independently run charter schools, Bañuelos said the approach has created schools that are exclusionary and not transparent.
“It has exacerbated inequity and racism and really disconnected communities,” she said.
Diaz said he doesn’t support charter schools sharing buildings with district-run schools because such co-locations, as the district calls them, segregate students. That was his experience when his children went from an integrated dual language elementary school to a co-located middle school where many of the Spanish-speaking students chose one school and the English-speaking students chose the other.
“They could no longer have lunch together, have art together, even play sports together,” Diaz said. “We could do a lot better for our kids. Our kids need to be together.”
Darnell said he agrees allowing families to choose schools can create segregation, but it’s not likely that Denver will prohibit choice. As such, he said the district needs to focus on “accountability and making sure that we have quality instruction” in all schools.
Lindsay didn’t express an opinion on charter schools, which have long been a controversial topic in Denver. Instead, she said her experience as a lawyer handling child custody cases is that most parents choose schools based on location, not type.
Khan was the lone applicant to support Denver’s approach. It doesn’t matter to most families whether their child’s school is run by the district or by a charter organization as long as it serves their child well, he said.
“While bureaucrats can get caught up in these different things, for families it’s about, ‘Is my kid getting the education I want for them?’” Khan said.
Audience members also asked the applicants their opinion of funding schools based on enrollment. Denver’s student-based budgeting system, which doles out extra dollars to students with higher needs, has come under fire as schools with low enrollment face closure.
Bañuelos said she’d like the district to scrap student-based budgeting for a model that ensures all schools, regardless of enrollment, have enough money to offer electives such as art and music, which often get cut when funding dips. Khan said that the district needs to “budget creatively” so that underenrolled schools have programming that will attract families.
Darnell said he supports giving extra funding to schools where the students have higher needs, while Lindsay and Diaz pointed out discrepancies in parent fundraising. Diaz said when he was a teacher, he and his students would sell tamales for $1 to raise extra money while other schools would bring in $10,000 from a single fundraising event.
All five applicants agreed that gentrification is the biggest issue facing northwest Denver, and several said they’d partner with city and state officials to advocate for rent control so that rising housing costs don’t continue to push working-class families out of the city.
Asked what new perspectives they’d bring to the board and how they’d work with current members, the applicants spoke about their strengths and the principles that guide them.
Lindsay said she’s skilled at bringing together people with opposing views. “Most people are partially right and partially wrong in every situation,” she said. “The whole objective has to be what’s the best thing for the community and what’s the best thing for the children.”
Darnell said he’s a consensus builder who values honesty. He said he would strive to be accessible to teachers and families. “I would represent the values of my community,” he said.
Diaz repeated a mantra he said would be central to his approach on the board: “Be brave, be tender, have high expectations, and be willing to pivot.”
Khan said he’s dedicated his working life to education and building relationships with students. “I have no allegiance but to kids, and I will put them first in every decision I make,” he said.
Bañuelos, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2017 and 2019, described herself as an outspoken advocate who is “fearless but not reckless.”
“While I can disagree with all board members,” Bañuelos said, “...you’ll know that I don’t bend my values. I stand with people, with my community, and what they ask for.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.