This week's cover story, "Drawing the Line," delves into the Denver Public Schools Board of Education election -- possibly the most important political race you're not paying attention to.
The future direction of DPS is at stake, with about half of the nine candidates in favor of continuing the district's aggressive brand of reform and the other half looking to try something different.
We spoke with all nine candidates and will post our interviews on the Latest Word. Today: the District 3 race.
On Thursday, we published interviews with Michael Kiley, Barbara O'Brien and Joan Poston, who are running for the At-Large seat. And on Friday, we followed up by speaking with Rosario C. de Baca and Rosemary Rodriguez, who are vying to fill the District 2 seat.
In District 3, which covers central Denver, two candidates -- Mike Johnson and Meg Schomp -- are running for the seat currently held by Jeannie Kaplan, who is term-limited.
In all, four seats are up for grabs on the seven-member DPS board, which is known for being dysfunctional and divided. If the candidates who back the "reform" movement sweep the election and maintain or increase the board's 4-to-3 pro-reform majority, it will be a win for strategies such as closing and replacing failing schools, encouraging charter and innovation schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
If not, it will signal that Denver voters have lost confidence in those tactics and want to head in a new direction, one that isn't so quick to label schools as failing, invests more money into neighborhood schools and uses test data in a less punitive way.
Here are our interviews with the District 3 candidates, in alphabetical order. Tomorrow, we'll publish our last round of interviews, with the candidates running in District 4.
- Age: 62
- Government finance lawyer, previously represented DPS
- Three daughters, one of whom graduated from Denver School of the Arts and two of whom, ages seventeen and fourteen, currently attend school there
- Website: mikejohnsonfordenverkids.com
Johnson's involvement with DPS began in 1998, when he was hired as the district's finance attorney. That same year, his oldest daughter started elementary school. Even though a majority of his friends sent their kids to private schools or schools in the suburbs, Johnson and his wife decided to commit to DPS.
"We wanted to stay in Denver," he says. "We wanted the diversity the Denver Public Schools provide." However, he says, they quickly realized that in order to ensure that their kids were getting a quality education, he and his wife had to pay close attention. At Steck Elementary, they were part of a group of parents who successfully lobbied to replace the principal. At Denver School of the Arts, Johnson served on the collaborative school committee, where he helped boost the school's academic program.
As DPS's finance attorney, Johnson helped write several ballot questions that he says resulted in $111 million more per year in the DPS budget from mill-levy overrides and $1.2 billion spent on school infrastructure through bonds. He was also involved in the district's complicated 2008 pension-financing deal, which has been criticized for being financially risky.
But Johnson says it wasn't his job to advise the district about whether the deal was smart. "I was the lawyer; I wasn't the financial person," he says. "They never asked my opinion about whether they should have done it. Frankly, if I would have been a boardmember, I'm not sure I would have voted for the transaction."
Johnson ended his contract with DPS in May. "By putting me on the school board, the district gets an incredible amount of free experience," he jokes.
Johnson thinks DPS is headed in the right direction but isn't improving fast enough. He's a fan of charter and innovation schools, and he'd like all schools, including traditional ones, to have more autonomy when it comes to decisions such as the length of the school year and how much to pay teachers. (He thinks they should be paid more.) "We can't continue to do what we've been doing and expect to have different results," he says.
Johnson has several ideas, including splitting the job of principal into two positions -- one that oversees academics and another that oversees business matters. He'd also like teachers to be more involved in making academic decisions and has considered the possibility of a "teachers' council" to vet the administration's ideas.
He isn't afraid of making big changes to improve low-performing schools, though he believes incremental changes should be tried first. Ultimately, Johnson says, the board is accountable to the kids, not to parents who may be resistant to turnaround. "The school doesn't serve a static group of parents or a static group of students," he says. "You have to think a little more broadly than just the opinions of the current parents."
- Age: 58
- Former social worker; former owner of a child-care center
- Four children, including a grown daughter who graduated from Denver School of the Arts and twelve-year-old twins who attend DSA and the Denver Green School
- Website: megschomp.com
Schomp was a DPS student and her mother was on the school board during the desegregation of the district in the '70s. Her family was in favor of integration, and Schomp worries that DPS is once again becoming segregated through the proliferation of charter schools.
"They will sift kids out or they will skim from other schools some of the best kids," she says. "And that's not the way a public-school system should work."
Schomp would like to see more attention and resources paid to the traditional neighborhood schools, which she defines as schools that kids can walk to. She says the district has been "very top-heavy" with charter schools and points out that while 23 percent of DPS schools are charters, they only serve 16 percent of DPS students.
"We really have been pushing charters and innovations beyond what we ought to be, and it's starved our neighborhood schools," she says.
Her own kids go to special programs within DPS (DSA is a magnet, and the Denver Green School is a neighborhood school with innovation status), and she says she's grateful that they exist. But she argues that many families have difficulty navigating the school-choice process, and she has concerns about some of the employment waivers sought by innovation and charter schools that allow them to disregard the teachers' union contract.
"I am concerned that we have had very rapid privatization of public schools," she says. She worries that decisions are made "because they're profitable rather than the best decisions for our children's education."
Schomp thinks DPS needs to switch directions, toward increased parental involvement and transparency. She also believes the district needs to give its reform efforts time to take hold rather than trying something for a year or two and then ditching it in favor of the latest trend. Low-performing schools should be given three to five years to turn themselves around with support from the district, especially since closing them when there aren't quality options for students to transfer to "can destroy a community."
While Schomp supported 3A, last year's mill-levy override to benefit DPS, she was opposed to 3B, the $466 million bond issue. (Voters approved both.) Schomp says she didn't like the fact that $38.5 million of the $466 million was earmarked for a new high school in Stapleton, especially when nearby George Washington has empty seats.
Schomp thinks the word "reform" is a misnomer. "I think that it's status quo at this point," she says. "We're really at a tipping point right now, and if we don't balance some of the things going on in the district, we're headed down a very dangerous road."
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For more candidate interviews, check back in with our cover story, "Drawing the Line."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at email@example.com