Denver decides

Happy Haynes edges challenger Robert Speth in DPS at-large race

Robert Speth with a supporter at his election watch party at a northwest Denver restaurant (Melanie Asmar).

Denver school board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes narrowly prevailed over upstart challenger Robert Speth in unofficial final results released Wednesday morning for the contested at-large DPS board seat.

Haynes tallied 53,729 votes and Speth had 52,918, according to Denver elections returns. The incumbent had trailed in earlier returns.

While close, Haynes’s margin appeared to put the result out of the range of a recount. In a two-person race, a recount is triggered if the difference between the two candidates is effectively a quarter of one percent, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A loss to the virtually unknown Speth would have been a stunning turn for Haynes, a Denver political fixture. Speth framed himself as an outsider, a check against what he describes as a “rubber stamp” board backing the district’s decade-old reforms.

If Haynes’ result holds — and at this point it should be a formality, with results becoming official in the coming weeks —it would mean a school board united behind the reforms of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Two other candidates prevailed Tuesday night over Boasberg critics. Lisa Flores won by healthy margin in northwest Denver’s District 5, and incumbent Anne Rowe easily held onto southeast Denver’s District 1 seat.

Haynes declined comment Tuesday night to a Chalkbeat reporter about early returns that showed her behind, then left an election party that also featured supporters of three Denver city ballot measures. Speth was cautious in his remarks Tuesday night.

In the race for a seat to represent northwest and west Denver, Flores defeated opponent Michael Kiley, 53 percent to 47 percent.

In the southeast race, Rowe won 62 percent of the vote to challenger Kristi Butkovich’s 38 percent.

Three seats were up for grabs on the seven-member school board, which almost always supports the district’s vision of a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

Six candidates ran for the three seats. Three of the candidates, including the two incumbents, largely agree with that vision and three don’t. But even if the naysayers had all prevailed, they wouldn’t have held enough board seats to block the district’s reform-minded policies.

The most contentious race unfolded in northwest and west Denver, where Flores and Kiley sought to represent District 5 and replace Arturo Jimenez, who is term-limited. Jimenez is often the lone dissenting voice on the board.

Flores, a former senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, was favored by reform groups that agree with DPS’s philosophy. Kiley, a program manager for a software company, was supported by the teachers union. He unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in 2013.

The two candidates differed on several key issues, including the use of “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries meant to increase participation in school choice and diversify schools. Flores is cautiously supportive while Kiley opposes them because, he says, students don’t always end up at their first-choice school.

“We know from Denver’s experiment with forced busing that parents with resources will choose the schools they prefer or leave the district,” he wrote in response to a question on a Chalkbeat questionnaire sent to all DPS candidates. (Read all of the responses here.)

Kiley and Flores also disagreed on charter schools. Kiley believes they should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them, and that charters shouldn’t have boundaries. Flores is more agnostic when it comes to school type.

“I believe that we need to focus less on the model of school governance and much more about knowing that it is successfully educating our children,” she wrote in response to a different question on the questionnaire.

As of Oct. 25, campaign finance reports showed that Flores raised a total of $110,219 thanks in part to more than 400 individual donors, which is more than contributed to any other candidate. Notable donors included Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners ($5,000); Michelle Yee of San Francisco, whose husband co-founded LinkedIn ($4,000); Colorado congressman Jared Polis ($2,000); and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg ($2,000), who also wrote the bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Kiley has gotten the bulk of his support — $84,000 of the $111,469 he’d raised by Oct. 25 — from teachers unions, which prefer his vision of strong “neighborhood schools” that offer comprehensive music, arts and sports programs in addition to academics.

In the past few weeks, cash has also flowed into the at-large race between Haynes and Speth. Haynes is a former Denver city councilwoman who’s worked for two mayors and champions many of the district’s policies. Speth is a father of two who works in the telecommunications industry. He’s been critical of DPS’s direction.

“The city of Denver should and CAN do better,” Speth wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire. “The decisions that are being made in education today are wrong.”

Haynes, meanwhile, largely supports the reform work of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, calling him “extraordinarily effective.”

Haynes and Speth disagree on other topics too, including how test scores should be used to rate schools. Haynes applauds DPS’s rating system for taking several factors into account when rating a school, including parent engagement and progress made on closing achievement gaps between, for example, low-income and non-low-income students. Speth argues the system still relies too heavily on students’ academic growth.

Speth was a late entrant to the race; he didn’t kick off his campaign until early September. Shortly after he did, Haynes’s fundraising skyrocketed. In two weeks in October, she more than quadrupled the amount of money she’d raised in the previous year, bringing her fundraising total to $90,629. Thiry ($5,000), Yee ($4,000) and Polis ($1,000) also contributed to her campaign.

Speth has raised less money: $60,196 as of Oct. 25, including $40,000 from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund, a union-affiliated small donor committee.

Editor’s note: Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation. 

End of an era

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg is stepping down after nearly 10 years

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Public School's Superintendent Tom Boasberg eats lunch with students at Cowell Elementary's Summer SLAM Program in 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Tom Boasberg, who has earned a national profile as Denver schools superintendent, is stepping down.

Boasberg announced Tuesday he’s leaving his post after an unusually long tenure – nearly 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools, a 92,600-student urban district nationally known for its innovative approaches to school improvement.

Boasberg will continue to serve for 90 days, as his contract with the district requires. The Denver school board will be tasked with choosing his successor. Boasberg, who is earning $242,125 as superintendent this year, said he does not have another job lined up.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision because I love this place, I am extraordinarily committed to our work and our mission, and I believe in it with all of my heart and soul,” Boasberg said in an interview Monday, a day before the public announcement. “I am going to miss it terribly, and I also know this is the right time for me and my family.”

Boasberg, 52, and his wife have three children, ages 17, 15, and 14. He said his decision was personal and not driven by the politics of the district. His oldest daughter, Nola, graduated from high school this year – a milestone he said made him stop and think about his commitments to his family, as well as his commitments to the district and to Denver students.

“I think we have lots of momentum and we’re in a strong place,” Boasberg said. Ultimately, he said his choice was born of a “deep desire to spend more family time with my kids before they’re all gone, and a very strong confidence in our board of education, our leaders in the Denver Public Schools, and our ability to have a successful transition.”

He did not offer an opinion on who should succeed him. When he took a six-month sabbatical in 2016 to live abroad with his family, the board appointed longtime district administrator Susana Cordova as acting superintendent. Cordova has since been named deputy superintendent.

The makeup of the seven-member Denver school board has shifted several times during Boasberg’s tenure, but he has always enjoyed the backing of a majority of members – a factor that has been key in advancing his vision. In the most recent election last year, however, two candidates critical of the district’s aggressive improvement strategies and its growing number of charter schools won seats on the board, breaking up what had been unanimous support.

But Boasberg said the latest political shift didn’t play a role in his decision. He called the board “strong” and “committed,” and he said he’s confident its members will continue the district’s momentum when he’s gone. Over the past 10 years, Denver Public Schools has seen its enrollment grow, its test scores improve, and its graduation rate increase.

Boasberg said he’s proudest of the fact that the numbers of black and Latino students graduating high school and going to college has nearly doubled in that time. In 2006, 1,706 black and Latino students graduated high school, according to the district. In 2017, 3,148 did.

However, the graduation rates and test scores of students of color and those from low-income families continue to lag behind the scores of white and affluent students. That has fueled sharp criticism in a district where 76 percent of the population is made up of students of color, and 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Closing those gaps continues to be the district’s biggest challenge, Boasberg said.

“We’ve been absolutely focused on that – and our data says we haven’t done enough, and we need to do more, and we need to do better,” he said. “For my successor, and likely my successor’s successor, that will be the No. 1 challenge.”

Boasberg joined Denver Public Schools in 2007 when he left a job as a senior telecommunications executive at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield to become the district’s chief operating officer under then-superintendent Michael Bennet, a childhood friend of his.

At that time, Bennet was two years into a plan to radically transform the district’s low-performing schools. When Bennet was tapped in January 2009 to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat, the Denver school board quickly decided that Boasberg should replace him as superintendent and continue the reforms underway, which included closing or replacing struggling schools.

Boasberg has refined those strategies and added plenty of his own. He has made Denver Public Schools into a national model whose tactics are revered by some and criticized by others. The latter group includes some local parent organizations and often the Denver teachers union.

The strategies the district has deployed include:

• A policy that lays out strict criteria for when low-performing schools should be closed or replaced. The rollout of this policy was rocky, and the school board recently announced it’s suspending the policy for a year while it conducts a community-wide “listening tour.”

• Creating a common enrollment system that allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver. The district also shares tax revenue with its independently run charter schools and allows charters to compete for space in district buildings. That has led to many charters sharing campuses with district-run schools, an arrangement that has at times sparked backlash from students and parents.

• Giving schools more freedom from district rules. This has taken several forms, including embracing a state law that allows district-run schools to be designated as “innovation schools” and freed from certain rules and regulations. The district also recently expanded its experiment with “innovation zones,” which are groups of schools with even more financial and organizational freedom. In addition, every district-run school may choose its own curriculum, teacher training programs, and school-based testing regimens.

• Allowing teachers to take on leadership roles. The district’s biggest initiative is its “teacher leadership and collaboration” program, which designates teachers in nearly every district-run school who spend part of their day teaching students and another part observing other teachers, providing feedback, and helping them plan lessons.

“That investment in people is by far the most important factor in our success,” Boasberg said.

Reflecting on his tenure, he said Denver Public Schools “is in a fundamentally different and better place” today than it was when he became chief of Colorado’s largest school district.

Asked about his best day on the job, Boasberg recalled a pair of championship basketball games in which the district’s two biggest high schools, East and South, were competing for the top place in their respective divisions.

The South team’s game was first. Boasberg, who as a young man played semi-pro basketball overseas, was there in the stands. In the waning seconds of the game, South lost in what Boasberg described as “an absolute heartbreaker.” But it was what happened next that still makes him smile when he thinks of it.

“Both the South and the East cheering sections starting chanting, ‘D-P-S,’” Boasberg said. “Not South. Not East. But DPS. And seeing our kids, this extraordinary diversity of both the schools and their sense of pride and joy. … It was an amazing moment.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.