Twenty-Year-Old Tay Anderson Jumps Into the Denver Board of Education Race

Tay Anderson with Mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him in his 2017 school-board run.
Tay Anderson with Mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him in his 2017 school-board run. Brother Jeff Photography

In 2017, Tay Anderson became the youngest person to ever run for a seat on the Denver Board of Education. He filed paperwork for that campaign before he'd even graduated from Manual High School, at the age of eighteen. Anderson would up placing third in his district, with approximately 25 percent of the vote, but the run earned him a lot of attention — and even the endorsement of former mayor Wellington Webb.

This week, Anderson is again announcing a run for the Denver School Board, this time for the at-large position currently held by Happy Haynes that will be decided in the November 2019 election. (Haynes is term-limited in 2019.)

Since his first run, Anderson has kept a high profile. Shortly after losing the school board race, he was one of the main organizers behind the Ink! Coffee protests in November 2017. He served for a time as the president of Never Again Colorado, which formed in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. And Anderson had a taste of state politics as a legislative aide for state representative Jovan Melton under the Golden Dome.

We caught up with Anderson, now twenty, to find out more about his platform, as well as his thoughts on some of the thornier issues facing Denver Public Schools.

Westword: This isn't your first rodeo. What did you learn from your run for school board in 2017? Were there any lessons from that previous go-around that will inform your current campaign?

Tay Anderson: I was constantly told during that first go-around that I was too young and that I didn't have enough experience to understand the complexities of the school board. And so as soon as I was told that, I went to work. So for the last year, I worked at Manual High School as a student activities coordinator, I worked as a PERA educator at University Park in southeast Denver, and now I work for Aurora Public Schools at Hinkley High School as a campus monitor.

What I learned is that, if people are going to say that you're too young or don't have what it takes, then you go out there and get the skills so that you are informed. So I've even been taking business classes in order to manage the $1 billion DPS budget once elected to the school board next November. I want people to understand that I might be young, but I have a lot of wisdom and have been doing my homework about this job, so I think I'm one of the most qualified candidates to run for this position. I went straight to work for the students of Denver Public Schools as soon as I lost in 2017.

Tay Anderson giving a rousing speech at the Ink! Coffee protest he organized last November. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Tay Anderson giving a rousing speech at the Ink! Coffee protest he organized last November.
Danielle Lirette
What are some of the things you'd hope to accomplish as a boardmember?

One thing I want to accomplish is a look at our school safety measures, especially having taken a leading role in the fight against gun violence in schools and communities of color. I want to see what school safety measures we have and where in our budget can we look to divert more resources to our mental health counselors versus adding more law enforcement officers that could perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.

My second position is to give students a legitimate seat at the table — and not just give them lip service anymore. I believe that our students need to understand that they're valued, they're heard, and I'd like to bring a student trustee before the board like other major school districts do across the nation.

My third and fourth focuses are on educators and the community. We need to invest in educators, and those aren't just classroom teachers, but everyone who makes the car continue to run — that's everyone in Denver Public Schools. And in bringing the community in. As a boardmember, I'd make sure that, before I ever go vote on any major item, I'd hold a town hall.

Your campaign announcement this week comes at an interesting time politically for DPS because of its search for a new superintendent to replace the outgoing Tom Boasberg. Do you have any thoughts on individuals that you'd like to see become superintendent? Or if not a specific person, the type of person you'd like to see be superintendent of DPS?

I believe we need to follow the Our Voice, Our Schools manifesto. They have a few key platforms. Some of those are: The superintendent must be an educator. They must be a person of color. And they must be a non-reformer — someone who's not going to push a privatization agenda.

And that's important: When you look at the superintendent position in Denver, it's almost like a United States Supreme Court justice position, because this person has the autonomy to stay there as long as the board allows them to. And we've seen that this last time, Tom Boasberg was allowed to stay for a decade. So it could be another decade before we even look at the next superintendent. We have to make sure that we're picking someone who has the best interest of all of our students, educators and community at heart.

For those who don't know, can you explain what Our Voice, Our Schools is?

It's a collective of parents from black, brown and indigenous backgrounds — and white allies — who are coming together saying that we need to be able to reclaim our schools. They are saying that we need to end privatization of our public schools. Our Voice, Our Schools has already helped the Montbello campus get a new library. So their work has been in the black, brown and indigenous communities, but they want to make sure everybody in Denver is elevated.

click to enlarge Tay Anderson with Mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him in his 2017 school-board run. - BROTHER JEFF PHOTOGRAPHY
Tay Anderson with Mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him in his 2017 school-board run.
Brother Jeff Photography
Another issue facing DPS right now is inequality in resources between individual schools. Recent media coverage of school choice — the ability of parents to choose any school within the system to send their kids to — has highlighted how this can lead to certain kinds of segregation and resource imbalances. What's you're take on how to address the issue?

I believe that we need to invest in our neighborhood schools to make them thrive. Because when you look at a school like University Park Elementary in southeast Denver, the parents invest in that school and have a strong PTA. Every time there's a school event, there are parents there, and that's how a school thrives. So I would like to see our parents devote time and resources to the neighborhood schools near them, because if we didn't have a system of school choice, I do believe that every neighborhood school would be full to capacity. When you look at the far northeast, we have 1,400 kids choicing out of those schools because there is not a comprehensive option in that neighborhood. And my first priority is to fight for the students of far northeast Denver to get them a comprehensive high school. Another point is to look at the STRIVE prep school up at North High School that is holding up almost 150 seats that [DPS] students are not able to take advantage of... . But, like I said, it's really turning that parent-led, PTA focus and bringing time and energy to all of our neighborhood schools.

You're jumping into the November 2019 race early. Why?

The reason we announced so early is to be a viable candidate, because it's going to take almost $150,000 to run this race. We have just over 440 days until the votes are in, and I'm excited to see what we do with the momentum we build. I think it will be a momentum that will change the nature of this school board and of this city. Because this campaign is not about Tay; this campaign is about every child in Denver Public Schools, no matter what school they go to. 
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker