The former CEO of the KIPP Colorado charter school network is running to represent southeast Denver on the school board.
Kimberlee Sia will challenge incumbent Scott Baldermann, who is running for re-election. One key difference between the two candidates is their views on charter schools and school choice: Baldermann is an outspoken critic, while Sia is a staunch supporter.
“Every family needs to have access to a school that best meets the needs of their children,” said Sia, whose two children attend Denver Public Schools. “I would love for the narrative to be changed by the board to say, ‘How do we take advantage of these great choices we have?’”
Three of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs Nov. 7. At stake is how the board will deal with declining enrollment and respond to safety concerns, especially after a high-profile shooting inside East High School this past spring. The election also has the potential to change the dynamic of the board, which has been criticized as dysfunctional.
Sia, 47, was CEO of KIPP Colorado Public Schools from 2013 to 2019. KIPP is a nationwide charter network with six schools in Denver.
Sia left KIPP to become president and CEO of the Colorado “I Have a Dream” Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs after-school and summer programming in DPS schools, among other initiatives. She said she recently left the foundation, in part to run for school board.
“Making the decision to run is focused on the fact that we need a change,” Sia said. “The pandemic was a challenge for everyone. As we’ve come out of that, as a parent, I just have not felt like the district has been as responsive to the community as they could be.”
Sia named school safety, declining student enrollment, and a sustainable workload for educators as her top concerns. She said she worries about high educator turnover.
“Working at the foundation, many of our kids would tell us, ‘I don’t have a teacher right now’ or ‘I have a substitute’ or ‘our principal left,’” she said. “For a school community to be stable, a huge component of that is the educators in the building every day doing amazing work with the kids.”
Sia said she agrees with the recent board decision to reinstate police officers in some Denver high schools. But police are not the only answer, she said.
“What are we doing to support schools on top of that?” Sia said. “Not every school has [a school resource officer, known as an SRO]. And for schools that do have an SRO, the SRO will not solve all the safety problems at the school.”
If elected, Sia said she’d like to see regular updates on how schools are following the superintendent’s recently released safety plan, which says, for example, that schools can choose to install weapons detection systems.
“How many schools chose to do that?” Sia said. “What are the impacts of that? Did you find 12 kids brought knives to school this week? There’s a lack of reporting and data in terms of, ‘This is what we the district are doing and let’s examine what’s working well and what’s not.’”
She’d also like to see more mental health support in schools, and for DPS to give educators clearer directions on student discipline. In her six years at KIPP, Sia said the network worked to reduce suspension rates and disproportionate discipline based on students’ race.
“When I first joined KIPP In 2013, there was hugely disproportionate discipline data and high suspension rates,” Sia said. “It’s part of what prompted me to say, ‘We need to address this.’ It wasn’t what kids needed. … When I left KIPP, it still wasn’t low enough for my liking. We made strides in the work we were doing and there was still work to do.”
One of the toughest decisions the school board will have to make is whether to close more schools due to declining enrollment. The board voted this past spring to close three small schools, but Superintendent Alex Marrero had originally recommended closing 10.
Sia said she’d support closing small schools if the cost to keep them open drains funding from other schools. But she criticized DPS’s recent approach, which she said didn’t give educators, families, and students enough notice or opportunity to problem solve.
“It is a challenge for me to see a situation where if the district is having to supplement funding for a school to a degree that begins to impact the funding for other schools that there is any decision other than having to close that school,” she said.
Candidates for Denver school board have historically fallen into one of two camps: those backed by the teachers union and those backed by education reform organizations. Candidates’ support or disapproval for independent charter schools has often been a dividing line.
Though Sia is closely tied with charter schools in Colorado, including having served as the board chair of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, she said she also has ties to teachers unions. She has worked as a classroom teacher, principal, and district administrator, and was president of a teachers union in a small district in California, she said. One of her children attends a charter school in DPS while the other attends a district-run school.
The current Denver school board members are all backed by the teachers union, but there has been infighting and power struggles between some members. Sia said she’d like to change that.
“For me, if you are sitting on the board, you are in service to the community and it needs to be about our students and our educators and our schools,” Sia said. “I see myself as a servant leader. It’s what is motivating me to run. I’m a get down, get dirty, and do the work type person.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.