UPDATE: As of Sept. 29, Paul Ballenger ended his campaign for the at-large school board seat and has endorsed John Youngquist. Here is a LINK to that press release.
This fall, Denver voters will decide the new makeup of the Denver School Board and the outcome of two ballot measures. Election Day is Nov. 7, with ballots mailed out on Oct. 16.
School Board Election: At-Large Candidates
Three of the seven school board seats are up for grabs in this election cycle, with two of those seats being for districts in the south and northwest regions of the city. But all Denver residents will cast votes for the at-large seat that was vacated by outgoing school board Vice President Auon’tai (Tay) Anderson, who dropped out of the race for re-election to instead run for a seat in the statehouse in 2024. Four candidates are now vying for that open seat, and many issues will need to be addressed by the at-large winner.
The infighting among current board members has garnered consistent complaints from Denver residents. Many critics have lamented what they see as constant disputes on the board, frequent insults on social media, and inadequate responses to the issues. As a result, the Colorado Polling Institute released a poll showing that only 30 percent of Denver voters approve of the current school board. School safety is another issue that board members will need to tackle, following shootings and other incidents of violence last spring that raised questions regarding the lack of an effective safety plan and the use of school resource officers. Additionally, the board must address declining enrollment at schools and the academic performance of students. Additionally, the board must address declining enrollment at schools, a staffing shortage among teachers, and the academic performance of students.
Front Porch spoke to the candidates for the at-large position to obtain their perspectives on these pressing issues. The interview questions are listed below, the bios were written by Front Porch, and the responses were provided by the candidates. The names are listed according to the order of the candidates on the ballot, and the participants have been granted equal word counts for each question.
Reasons for Running: What were the main reasons that motivated you to run for the at-large school board seat?
Infighting: How would you reduce the infighting among members and improve the collaborations on the board?
School Safety: What are your strategies to increase the safety of our students, and what is your opinion on the use of school resource officers?
Mental Health: What are your plans to improve the mental health of our students?
Declining Enrollment: What are your thoughts on closing or combining small schools with low enrollment numbers?
Teacher Shortage: How do you think the district can most effectively recruit and retain exceptional teachers?
Academic Achievement: What strategies would you implement or what modifications would you make to maximize the academic performance of our students?
Final Remarks: Is there anything else about yourself or the issues that we haven’t yet covered and that you’d like to address?
Bio: Johnson graduated from George Washington High School, has three children in the DPS system, and is currently a community organizer and doctoral student. She has been endorsed by many progressive leaders, including outgoing board member Auon’tai Anderson, current City Councilmember Sarah Parady, and former City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca.
Interview: Johnson entered the race in September and has not respond to an interview request.
Bio: Youngquist served as principal of two DPS elementary schools and did two stints at East High School. He led East from 2007-2012, left to become the DPS Director of Principal Talent Management, and then returned to East High to serve as principal again from 2017-2022.
Reasons for Running: I’m frustrated with the distractions that our board is experiencing and the difficulty they’ve had gaining traction on the important issues we’re facing around teaching, learning, safety, and mental health.
Infighting: The board has been drawn to selfish interests and individual priorities, and that’s not the work of the board. We need to come together as an organization, move forward for our community, and get the best results for the students.
School Safety: We need a system to form strong partnerships with the police department and Denver Health, to prevent behavioral issues from occurring, and to respond effectively if they do. As principal, I was against removing SROs and I’m glad they’re back, but we also need comprehensive solutions for student safety and mental health.
Mental Health: We need to invest twice the amount in mental health to provide support for preschool up to high school. Now we have 19 school-based clinics, and tripling that to 60 would better meet the mental health needs of our students.
Declining Enrollment: We don’t have a transparent view into our financial status, and we can’t discuss budget reduction and school closures without first understanding our finances, costs, and investments across the district.
Teacher Shortage: We need to develop pathways to recruit and support teachers, especially teachers of color. We can form partnerships with our universities, offer teaching degree scholarships for our high school kids, and reimagine our learning and evaluation systems for our teachers.
Academic Achievement: I start with relationship and culture. We need a high-trust organization to identify the challenges students face and the opportunities we offer. We can then design creative learning experiences where kids are engaged, and we’ll see progress from that framework.
Final Remarks: I’m optimistic that we can make progress, I’m invested as a leader, and I believe within months we can turn a corner to advance our learners and celebrate our successes.
Bio: Spearman rose through the DPS system and graduated from East High. After attending Columbia University, Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, he became the owner and CEO of the Tattered Cover and helped the bookstore expand into new locations. Although he maintains co-ownership status, he resigned as CEO to run for office.
Reasons for Running: I’d be the fourth generation of my family involved in public schools. And people aren’t happy with the board, so we need a fresh perspective, new ideas, and new energy.
Infighting: We need to de-politicize the school board because it’s not about individual personalities. I’ll treat my fellow board members with respect, I won’t be on social media critiquing other members, and we’ll bring decorum back while focusing on student outcomes.
School Safety: We have to aspire to not have any guns in our schools. We can get there in a few years, but we’re not there yet and so I was against removing SROs without a safety plan, and it’s clear that right now we need them until we can become gun-free.
Mental Health: We’ve got to bring more mental health funding into our schools. I’ll partner with Denver Health and scale out our mental health resources to help students who suffer from chronic depression or who are just going through a rough time.
Declining Enrollment: Our schools are community centers, so I’m against closing schools with fewer students. We should instead develop innovative ways to use the space and bring those schools back to life.
Teacher Shortage: I focus on a Teacher Bill of Rights. We have to increase teacher compensation from $54,000 to $60,000, provide better benefits packages with maternity leave, and provide the types of housing they need on vacant land owned by the district.
Academic Achievement: The District has created a huge achievement gap between White students and Black or Latino students, and that’s why we need a leadership change so the new generation can look at what’s working and bring that to our minority students.
Final Remarks: I have an aspirational vision for the district. We need 100 percent of our third graders reading, 100 percent of our high schoolers graduating, and all our students feeling safe.
Ballot Measures: Prop HH and Proposition II
Prop HH was established by the state legislature to address the property valuation increases that homeowners experienced in the spring and the skyrocketing property taxes they could pay as a result. The measure would decrease the property tax rates in Colorado from 7.1 percent to 6.7 percent while also allowing homeowners to reduce their home valuations by $50,000.
Although this would reduce the revenue available for local governments and school districts, Prop HH would backfill that funding by also raising the Referendum C (Ref C) cap. Ref C places a limit on how much revenue the State can retain and spend each year, and any revenue that exceeds that limit must get refunded to the taxpayers. Prop HH would raise the Ref C cap by one percent for ten years, sending the extra money to city governments and school districts. Additionally, Prop HH would equalize
TABOR refunds by having all taxpayers receive an identical refund of $898.
Supporters say that the measure would provide long-term property tax relief and benefit low and middle-income residents. The measure is being supported by the Democratic Party, Gary Advocacy, and the Colorado Education Association.
Opponents argue that the measure would reduce the TABOR refunds for some residents and supersede the gains from the tax relief. Groups opposing Prop HH include the Colorado Republican Party, Advance Colorado Action, Americans for Prosperity, and Defend Colorado.
Proposition II: In 2020, voters approved a tax increase on tobacco and nicotine products to help fund universal preschool in a measure known as Prop EE, but the revenue generated from the tax hike substantially exceeded the projections by $23.65 million. Prop II now asks if the State can retain that extra revenue and allocate it to the universal preschool program.
A “yes” vote would send the revenue to the preschool program and keep the higher tobacco taxes at the same rates. However, a “no” vote would refund the $23.65 million to tobacco distributors and reduce the tobacco tax rate by 11.53 percent.