Meet DPS school board At-Large hopefuls Michael Kiley, Barbara O'Brien, Joan Poston

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 rest looking to try something different.

We spoke with all nine hopefuls for the Latest Word. Up first: the At-Large race.

Three candidates -- Michael Kiley, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O'Brien, and Joan Poston -- are running to fill the At-Large seat being vacated by current board president Mary Seawell, who has said that increasing family and work demands contributed to her decision not to run for re-election.

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 three At-Large candidates, in alphabetical order. We'll publish our interviews with the District 2, 3 and 4 candidates in the coming days.

  • Age: 46
  • Project manager at software company Kronos Incorporated
  • Two children: a seven-year-old at Edison Elementary School and an eleven-year-old at Skinner Middle School
  • Website:

Kiley was born in Denver but grew up in California. He returned here in 1994 and eventually settled in northwest Denver. A few years ago, he became concerned about Skinner Middle School, which was suffering from low enrollment.

"There weren't a lot of positive things being said about it at barbecues and parties," he says. "A handful of parents and myself...didn't understand why. We met with the principal, we met with the teachers, and we were very impressed. But what we learned was that Skinner was attracting primarily below-proficient students."

Kiley and other parents pressed the school board for grants to increase Skinner's music, sports and honors programs in an effort to bring students back. It worked, Kiley says. "Once those programs were brought in-house, the enrollment started to climb."

Now Kiley would like to see a comprehensive school like Skinner in every neighborhood. "The majority of kids and parents are probably going to gravitate toward that neighborhood school if it's a quality option," he says.

Kiley isn't against choice, though he says he "has a huge disagreement with the premise that charters inherently are better schools." He thinks it's unfortunate that the popular magnet schools, like Denver School of the Arts, tend to have fewer low-income kids. "Are we not understanding what those families expect from public schools?" he says. "What I'm hearing from them is they want the school down the street."

Kiley believes that test data is important in determining whether a school is failing, but he doesn't think it tells the whole story. He worries that in a race to improve scores, schools will strip their curriculum of anything that's not on the test. "If I've got three years to show success as a principal, would I waste any time on sports?" he asks.

When it comes to improving low-performing schools, Kiley likes the approach taken at West High, where the community had a big say in how to turn around the school. Even though the process was long and sometimes messy, and he thinks it's too early to tell if the plan is working, the fact that the community supports it bodes well.

"They believe it's going to work," he says. "As long as the community doesn't walk away from the school, that school has got a much better chance."

Kiley disagreed with the co-location of a STRIVE Prep high school at North (he thought the district should have put the charter school in another building) and he voted against 3B, the $466 million DPS bond on last year's ballot. Though he supported most of the proposed projects, he opposed spending money on a new administration building. He says his hope was that 3B could be reworked and put on this year's ballot.

Asked whether he's in favor of reform, Kiley says, "I feel like I'm the one that's looking to bring some real change. I guess I can't use the R-word for myself, but I feel like I am the person who's not defending the status quo."

Continue for our interviews with O'Brien and Poston.
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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar

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