Choosing A School Board Representative
Have you heard? There’s a school board election coming up next month—time to start paying attention. Four of seven seats on the Denver school board are contested, offering the potential for an entirely new direction, depending on the outcome of the election. For a PDF with individual candidate information, please click here: Stapleton and Park Hill (District 3), Lowry, Mayfair and Montclair (District 4) and At Large Candidates (all voters).
In recent years, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has experienced remarkable consensus and stability, its seven-member board often voting unanimously and the same superintendent, Tom Boasberg, at the helm since January 2009. Strategically guided by the Denver Plan 2020, the board and Boasberg have steered DPS through a period of notable growth and achievement, including increased enrollment, record gains on state tests, near doubling of graduation rates and narrowing of achievement gaps. The current board and DPS leadership adhere to a model of school reform that promotes school-level autonomy through increased charter and innovation schools and a districtwide system of choice.
Nationally, Denver has been hailed as a model of urban school reform. The Brookings Institution named Denver the best large district in the country for education choice and competition in 2016 and 2017, and it has received accolades from other important national organizations, like the National Council on Teacher Quality and Educational Resource Strategies.
Criticisms of DPS
But critics say that not all is as rosy in DPS as the national acclaim makes it sound. The achievement gap may be narrowing, but it persists, with low-income students and students of color lagging behind their peers. The graduation rate of 67 percent in 2016 still trails the state’s rate of 79 percent. Traditional neighborhood schools that were deemed to be failing have been closed, leaving families scrambling to find a school for their child and transportation to go with it, especially burdensome for poor families. And the vast increase in charter schools, whose teachers are non-union, faces vehement opposition from the teachers’ union.
Issues Facing DPS
Ironically, one problem the district faces is Denver’s growing economy. Former DPS board chair Mary Seawell, who now oversees educational efforts at the Gates Family Foundation, says it brings the new challenge of gentrification “and pushing out a lot of our families in poverty. We want to make sure the gains are not because our kids that need the most support are being driven from the system.” Seawell suggests a future challenge for the board may be for it to set the course for serving students “not just in the boundaries of the district but more holistically in the metro area.”
Seawell acknowledges the current differences of opinion on whether DPS has too many charter schools and that there have been calls for a moratorium on approving new charter schools. Based on her knowledge as a former board member, she points out that a quality charter whose application is denied can appeal to the State Board of Education. “If you [deny] enough times, the district loses its ability to authorize at all, and you have a quasi-governmental organization called Charter School Institute (CSI) take over,” she said. “DPS would no longer have any control over it.” Seawell suggests that keeping local control over charters is important, especially for maintaining the district’s equity goals for charters—which are the same goals they have for traditional schools.
Board Member Roles
Many of Denver’s school board responsibilities are outlined in state law, according to Seawell. These include overseeing complicated finances, hiring and firing the superintendent, and supervising the superintendent. Representatives also act as a conduit between the community and school administration.
But, where Denver is nationally recognized is in its approach to governance, says Seawell. The Denver school board sets direction and ensures that the superintendent is aligned with that strategic vision. This occurs through the regularly updated Denver Plan 2020, where the board and superintendent outline goals like great neighborhood schools, college and career readiness and closing the opportunity gap.
Seawell also points out that board members do not manage the district’s employees—that is the role of the superintendent.
Equity as a DPS Value
Seawell points out that DPS was one of the first districts in the country to put out a statement of how they were going to protect families from immigration enforcement. “We may disagree on the mechanics of the district,” says Seawell, but not the way DPS has established equity as a fundamental value. “That starts with the school board, goes through the superintendent and works itself all the way down to the classroom.”
Choosing a Candidate
When selecting a school board representative, Seawell, reminds voters of the importance of choosing “someone you know will call you back and be in contact and hear your needs.” She also urges voters to consider “the larger good of our city and our district,” where 68 percent of the students receive subsidized lunch.
The Front Porch submitted eight questions on current DPS issues and practices to all the candidates our readers will vote on. Responses from the candidates for districts 3 and 4, who represent all the neighborhoods in the Front Porch distribution area, as well as the at-large candidates that represent the entire city are in the link at the beginning of this article.