Candidates, parents looking for Denver school board shakeup this fall

Denver’s school board, which has drawn the ire of parent groups in recent months over directors’ infighting and the district’s handling of school safety, faces a potential shake-up when voters cast their ballots in November’s election.

Nine candidates — including incumbents Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsay — are vying for three seats on Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education as parent groups push for a change in leadership.

At least one new face will join the board later this year after its most high-profile member, Auon’tai Anderson, dropped his re-election bid and is now pursuing a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives.

The election comes as DPS and the district’s board are facing heightened scrutiny following the March shooting inside East High School, in which a student shot and wounded two administrators.

In the wake of the shooting, a group of parents and other community members have called on members to resign over their handling of school safety. Members of the Resign DPS Board movement since have appeared at school board meetings, often in matching shirts with the group’s logo.

“We’re in this really interesting moment where Denverites are looking at the school board and saying things look like they are off the right track,” said Clarence Burton Jr., chief executive of Denver Families for Public Schools, a nonprofit that seeks to increase participation in school board elections. (The group’s political arm, Denver Families Action, has endorsed three candidates.)

At the same time, Burton said, Denver is just off the heels of the mayoral election, which ushered in a new administration.

“It’s a new day — sort of — at the municipal level,” he said. “We have an opportunity this November to have that same experience.”

School boards across the U.S. were thrust into the spotlight after COVID-19 temporarily closed schools in 2020, with once-sleepy meetings turning into hyper-partisan battles over public health policies and classroom curriculums.

That increased interest from parents and others in what’s happening in schools is also reflected in the elections of the boards that govern them — something that DPS is not immune to even if the topics being debated differ from those happening on the national stage, according to board members, candidates and others who spoke to The Denver Post.

“That same passion and vitriol and increase of politics in our educational system, we are seeing that right now,” said Kwame Spearman, one of the candidates running for the board. “There is concern that right now we are putting politics and maybe external issues in front of what really matters, which is supporting our students and teachers.”

The East shooting has sparked interest in the upcoming election by highlighting the district’s discipline policies and the board’s decision to remove and then reinstate armed police officers in district buildings.

But so has public infighting among board members and disagreements with other city officials, including former Mayor Michael Hancock, as well as the board’s handling of decisions regarding school closures and declining enrollment — all of which have drawn extensive news media coverage, said Parker Baxter, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver.

“My sense is that people want the board to be more competent,” he said.

This election, Baxter said, has less to do with political ideology — or even past debates regarding education reform policies — and is more about restoring the public’s confidence in the school board and district.

A recent poll by the Colorado Polling Institute found that respondents — especially those who have children in the district — view the school board negatively.

“I completely understand our parents’ frustrations,” said board president Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, adding, “I want to reassure the public that we are getting quite a bit of work done.”

Anderson said the board began receiving more attention after his own profile grew during the George Floyd protests that took place in 2020. He has served on the board since 2019.

“I have been at the center of the spark of the interest… in the people interested in the Denver school board,” Anderson said.

Paul Ballenger, one of the four candidates running for Anderson’s at-large seat, agreed.

“He’s drawn a lot of attention in recent years,” he said. “There’s a lot of eyes on that seat and who replaces it.”

Anderson’s tenure on the board has been tumultuous. He was censured — or publicly reprimanded — by his colleagues in 2021 after an investigation found he made intimidating social media posts and flirted with a 16-year-old student before knowing her age. The same investigation found anonymous allegations of sexual assault made against Anderson to be unsubstantiated.

Anderson, the board’s vice president, has also clashed publicly with other board members, most notably Gaytán.

“We are the first Black and brown coalition to lead the school board and we get more scrutiny than others,” he said, adding, “This board has not been able to get… positive media news coverage.”

The Denver school board has had one of “the most progressive terms” in the district’s history, Anderson added, noting that the board has reopened schools closed by previous ones and has disrupted the school-to-prison pipeline as fewer tickets are being issued to students.

“I’m hoping that people will start being very honest with themselves,” he said. “They’re using interpersonal issues for hidden language for saying this school board has been too progressive.”

Anderson said he regretted not running for re-election for his at-large seat “now that I’ve seen the quality of candidates running.”

Others disagreed with Anderson’s assertion that there was an effort to use the election to make the board less progressive.

“This is geared towards having a board that is functional and can make critical decisions,” said Heather Lamm, who spearheads the Resign DPS Board group. “I don’t think that safety is a progressive or conservative issue.”

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