what's next?

With all ballots finally counted, the outcome is clear: A return to differences of opinion on the Denver school board

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

When new members are sworn in later this month, the Denver school board will gain something it hasn’t had, to any significant degree, in two years: dissenting voices.

Two candidates who disagree with some of Denver Public Schools’ more controversial improvement strategies won seats Tuesday, according to final unofficial returns posted Thursday night, in a hard-fought election that featured more negativity than usual. Two candidates who agree with the district’s direction also won seats, meaning the seven-member board will retain its majority in favor of policies such as universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg sounded a positive note about the results, emphasizing the winning candidates’ similarities instead of their differences.

“A natural and healthy part of elections is for folks to have a real vigorous competition of ideas,” he said. “An equally important, if not more important, part is that after the elections, folks come together, continue to debate and discuss very vigorously and recognize there’s lots in common.”

He added that “so much of what (the district is) doing — around early literacy, teacher leadership and social justice — I think you’ll see a very high degree of support for.”

School board president Anne Rowe said she believes the prevailing candidates “care deeply about our kids and want to work hard to continue to push this district forward.”

“I see us continuing forward on the path we are on,” she said. “And when you talk about the values and what we all care about, I think folks would be in agreement on those things.”

The four candidates who won Tuesday’s election include one incumbent, Barbara O’Brien, and three newcomers: Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián and Carrie A. Olson. While the three hold differing policy opinions, they have one thing in common: They’ve all been at the front of a classroom. Bacon and Cobián are former teachers, while Olson is a current teacher.

Olson and Bacon were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has pushed back against a district policy to close low-performing schools and called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Cobián was not endorsed by the union. She and O’Brien were backed by groups that support the district’s strategy, which includes cultivating a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools and more autonomous schools — and encouraging families to choose between them.

Tuesday’s election was a reversal of fortunes for the union, whose political influence had eroded over the years. In 2009, the board was split between a vocal three-member minority backed by the union and a four-member majority who supported the district’s direction. By 2013, the union had lost two seats, resulting in a board split 6-to-1. And in 2015, no union-backed candidates won. For the past two years, the board has frequently voted 7-0 in support of DPS proposals.

Union president Henry Roman said that in this year’s election, “Denver voters affirmed their commitment to public education and their support for our students.”

Backers of the district’s strategies faced a challenging electoral environment: Donald Trump’s election, and his elevation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, enlivened progressive activists and voters — a bloc that includes members and supporters of labor unions.

Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, said the major takeaway is not that union-backed candidates won two seats on a seven-member board, but that the pro-reform members hung onto their majority.

“The opponents of that agenda needed to win all-out here,” Baxter said. That they didn’t, he said, means the debates may be more heated but the outcomes will be the same.

Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform group that endorsed O’Brien and Cobián, said the organization is pleased overall with the election results and doesn’t expect “a significant shift in where the district is headed.” An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Stand spent money to elect pro-reform candidates.

On the other side, Scott Gilpin, a parent active in a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools that opposes the district’s portfolio strategy, said the election didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Just one of the candidates the group endorsed, Olson, prevailed.

An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Our Denver, Our Schools spent money, too, to elect its candidates, though its war chest was nowhere near the size of those of pro-reform groups, a factor Gilpin said “makes a huge difference.”

“We were hoping to win four seats; we won one seat,” he said. “I don’t consider that a victory.”

Olson, who has been a DPS teacher for 33 years and currently works at West Leadership Academy, faces a significant hurdle to joining the board. A district policy adopted in 1987 prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving because it would present a conflict of interest.

Olson said that “the first thing I’d like to do is speak with my six new colleagues about revisiting this 30-year-old policy and seeing if we can revise that, because I think the people have spoken very clearly that they want educators on the school board.”

The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 27, and the board has two meetings scheduled before then. But board president Rowe said Wednesday the board is not scheduled to discuss the policy at those meetings.

“There is a precedent that employees of the district do not serve on a board of education,” Rowe said. “There are really sound reasons why that makes sense.”

The election attracted a degree of national attention given that Denver is known nationally for its reform strategies. Even though the board majority held, the outcome should be a lesson to supporters of school choice and charter schools that teachers unions and other opponents can effectively mobilize in a low-turnout election, said consultant and author David Osborne, who wrote admiringly of DPS’s strategies in a new book about reforming education systems.

“It just underlines what I think we all know, which is you have to keep your eye on the political ball and you have to win the political battle over and over and over,” said Osborne, director of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.

Echoing others, Osborne said he thinks the Trump presidency may make it more difficult for pro-reform candidates to prevail. “It may turn many Democrats away from charter schools because Trump supports them,” he said. “I do worry about that and it could be happening.”

Observers said it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of efforts to tie local pro-reform candidates to Trump and DeVos, who is unpopular in Denver. Union-backed political committees sent mailers depicting Cobián and incumbent Rachele Espiritu as Trump allies, a claim they vehemently rejected. Cobián won her race to represent southwest Denver, while Espiritu, an appointee running for re-election in northeast Denver, lost hers.

In the three-person race to represent the city at-large, the campaign of candidate Robert Speth sent a mailer comparing incumbent Barbara O’Brien to DeVos.

O’Brien benefited from having more than one opposition candidate challenging her: She won 40.5 percent of the vote, while Speth garnered about 35 percent and former teacher Julie Bañuelos won 23 percent. Bañuelos earned a significant share of the vote considering she ran a shoestrings campaign with no support from outside groups, including those funded by teachers unions.

The only race that didn’t feature such a mailer — or much drama at all — was the contest between Olson and incumbent Mike Johnson to represent central-east Denver. That race was the closest in early returns, but Olson’s lead kept growing as more ballots were counted and she ended up defeating Johnson 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Johnson-Olson race also attracted the least amount of money from independent political committees attempting to sway voters, according to campaign finance reports that tracked spending through Election Day, and less attention from organizations that marshal volunteers to knock on doors.

Students for Education Reform Action Network, which deploys high school and college students to canvass, sat out that race entirely. Though Johnson supports reform, the organization did not endorse any candidate in central-east Denver, a wealthier and less diverse part of the city. A spokeswoman explained it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

The Denver and statewide teachers unions weren’t very active in the race, either. Though the union endorsed Olson, it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on helping elect two other candidates: Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who lost to Cobián in southwest Denver, and Bacon, who defeated Espiritu and another challenger, Tay Anderson, in northeast Denver.

The region represented by the northeast Denver seat is large and includes neighborhoods with a wide range of income levels and racial diversity, including historically African-American neighborhoods and new developments that have attracted a lot of white families.

A map produced by the Denver Elections Division before the final unofficial results were posted showed Bacon won precincts in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Montbello, where she lives, and in closer-in northeast neighborhoods including Northeast Park Hill. Espiritu won in precincts in the Stapleton neighborhood, where she lives.

In with the new

Newark school board selects new leaders after raucous vote

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Members of the Newark school board in February with Mayor Ras Baraka and former Superintendent Christopher Cerf.

Newark’s school board has new leadership after a vote Tuesday that was disrupted by hecklers claiming the vote was rigged.

Josephine Garcia, a city councilman’s aide whose children attended charter and magnet schools in Newark, was elected as board chairwoman. Dawn Haynes, who works in the mayor’s office and whose children attend Newark district schools, was chosen to be vice chairwoman.

The new leadership, which will oversee the selection of a new district superintendent next month, is taking over just months after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district and returned full authority to the board. Haynes and two other new members who were elected to the board last week — Yambeli Gomez and Asia Norton — were sworn in at Tuesday’s meeting.

Observers have been watching closely to see whether the city’s political leaders would try to influence the elected board now that it has regained control over the schools. In particular, many wonder how much power Mayor Ras Baraka and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos will hold over the board now that all nine members — including the newest three — ran on slates that were chosen and endorsed by the two men, along with the charter-school sector.

Some critics believed that Baraka and Ramos told the board members whom to choose as their new leaders. As soon as voting began at the public meeting Tuesday, some audience members started to boo and shout, “The community should vote!” and “This is Anibal Ramos’ and Ras Baraka’s board!” The shouting, which lasted for more than 20 minutes and at times brought the meeting to a halt, was led by two community activists who unsuccessfully ran in this year’s board race.

The same group of people cheered when board members Leah Owens and Kim Gaddy nominated one another for chair and vice chair, though no other members voted for them. After the meeting, Gaddy suggested that her colleagues had been influenced by their political patrons.

“As opposed to individual board members making that decision, you had politicians making that decision,” she said. “It’s unfortunate.”

An advisor to the mayor said she was not aware of anyone from his office instructing board members how to vote. Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, said the members chose their new leaders without any input from the councilman.

“These are nine individuals that were supported by the mayor, by Councilman Ramos and the North Ward Democratic Committee, and by ed reform,” he said, referring to pro-charter school groups. “We’re comfortable with whatever decision was made yesterday.”

The board will now turn its attention to choosing a new superintendent.

A search committee consisting of three board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner have been interviewing candidates. Owens, who is on the committee, said the interviews have concluded and the finalists will soon be presented to the board.

According to a state-created plan to guide the district’s return to local control, the board must vote on the new superintendent by May 31. A leading candidate is Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory.

After Tuesday’s vote, Garcia made brief remarks, which were partly drowned out by shouting. She promised to “be a chair of total inclusion” and to help shepherd the district’s transition back to local control.

“I look forward to working with you all in our ongoing mission to move our district forward,” she said.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who is leaving the Memphis Education Fund next month for a new job with The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Editor’s note: We updated this story with Marcus Robinson’s current job title.