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 posted our interviews on the Latest Word. Today: District 4.
Last Thursday, we published interviews with Michael Kiley, Barbara O'Brien and Joan Poston, who are running for the At-Large seat. On Friday, we followed up by speaking with Rosario C. de Baca and Rosemary Rodriguez, who are vying to fill the District 2 seat. And on Monday, we brought you interviews with District 3 candidates Mike Johnson and Meg Schomp.
The final race -- in District 4, which covers northeast Denver -- involves two candidates: Roger Kilgore and Landri Taylor, who currently sits on the board and is running to keep his seat. He was appointed in March to fill a vacancy left by Nate Easley.
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 4 candidates, in alphabetical order.
- Age: 56
- Water resources engineer
- Married thirty years but "never been blessed with kids"
- Website: rogerkilgore.com
Kilgore is worried about what he sees as the re-segregation and privatization of Denver's public schools. He's raised concerns about an interview that his opponent, Landri Taylor, gave to the I-News Network, in which Taylor said he was "200 percent for vouchers." Kilgore has also called attention to the fact that Barbara O'Brien once supported vouchers for low-income kids in failing school districts. (Taylor says he misspoke, and O'Brien says she no longer supports vouchers.)
But Kilgore hasn't dropped the issue. If Taylor said eight months ago that he was in favor of vouchers, Kilgore reasons, "what will the situation be in another eight months?"
Kilgore sees education as a social-justice issue, which is why he strongly supports comprehensive neighborhood schools. "I do see my job...as providing a good choice in every neighborhood," he says. "And if a parent decides there's a better program elsewhere, at least it's not because they're fleeing the neighborhood."
Charter and innovation schools have a place, Kilgore says, especially if they're focused on a specific subject area like art or science. But he says most charter schools don't fit that description. Instead, he says, they're populated by kids whose parents are engaged enough to choose them -- and kids with engaged parents are likely to do well no matter where they are. "Charter schools kind of live in a charmed ecosystem," he says.
Competition for students doesn't improve schools, Kilgore says. He argues that every candidate is in favor of reform, but the difference is that some support "corporate" reform that uses "the tools of privatization" to make improvements, while others, including him, tout "community-based reform," which involves working with principals, teachers, parents and community members to figure out how to turn around a low-performing school.
"It means a lot of meetings and discussions about what's working now as opposed to throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Kilgore explains. "What do we have that's our strength, and then where do we want to be? What are the barriers?"
He believes the DPS administration is leading the corporatization effort and "should be held accountable for the failures in our schools." He points to the widening achievement gap and high college remediation rates as examples of those failures.
Kilgore, who moved to Denver in 2000, first ran for the school board two years ago. He came in second out of a field of five candidates in the at-large race won by Happy Haynes, who secured nearly 60 percent of the vote compared to Kilgore's 11 percent. Kilgore currently serves on the district School Accountability Improvement Council and the Bond Oversight Committee, which is keeping track of how DPS spends that $466 million.
In general, Kilgore thinks DPS puts too much emphasis on academic tests and needs to measure how students are doing in subjects such as art, music and physical education, as well. He believes teacher evaluations are helpful, but not if they're punitive. And he thinks it's too early to tell if turnaround efforts in his district -- especially at Montbello High School, which is being replaced with three smaller schools -- are working.
He'd like to see specialized programs within bigger schools instead. "You can have smaller programs within a comprehensive high school that mimic smaller programs in separate high schools," he says. "But the district doesn't want to engage in that conversation.... They have blinders on. They have an ideology that says that's bad."
- Age: 63
- President of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver
- Three grown children, including two who graduated from Montbello High School
- Website: landrifordps.com
Taylor is already on the school board, having been appointed in March to fill the seat vacated by Nate Easley, who left to become head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. And he believes that this school board race is the most important one in the country. "Denver has been leading the effort in terms of turnaround, in terms of transformation and innovation," he says.
Taylor wears the reformer label with pride, calling non-reformers the "wait-and-see crowd."
"Not only am I part of the reform camp, but I led the first effort toward reforming our far northeast schools," he says, referring to the plan that the board approved in 2010 to turn around six low-performing schools. It resulted in the closure of four, drastic changes at two more, and the opening of nine new charter and innovation schools to replace those that are closing.
Taylor's involvement started when he was a parent disappointed in the education his daughters were receiving. But rather than move districts, he kept them in DPS. "We chose to be part of a solution," he says, "not to move out of the neighborhood."
Through his work with the Foundation for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit focused on creating public-private partnerships to improve education, and the Urban League, he became involved in early turnaround discussions. He says the community was presented with three options: do nothing, continue to evaluate the situation or move forward with big changes. "And overwhelmingly, everyone said, 'Let's move forward,'" Taylor says. "And the reason they did that is because they had no fear."
He thinks DPS handled the process well, but can also do better. When parents are resistant, he says, the district should do a better job at explaining how the schools are failing. "Bring them into recognizing the challenge," he says. "My bet is they will all say, 'Status quo isn't going to help our children.'"
Overall, he thinks the far northeast turnaround is working, though he acknowledges that the early results are a "mixed bag." He admits that some schools have had high teacher turnover already. To fix that, he says the district should develop a principal and teacher pipeline "so you're growing your own effective teachers and your own effective leaders." Consistency will be key if the turnaround is going to succeed, he adds.
Taylor is most proud of the votes he's taken to open new schools. The hardest decisions he's had to make were whether to renew the contracts for mediocre or low-performing schools, he says.
Taylor counts himself among the board majority and says if the balance of the board were to flip -- that is, if the minority became the majority -- "progress would stop."
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For all nine of the candidate interviews, read our cover story, "Drawing the Line."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at email@example.com