Dynamics fluid in DPS at-large race

Competition is ratcheting up for the at-large seat on the Denver Public Schools board, with one additional candidate joining the field and a well-known politician eying the race.

DPS Election 2011Manual High School administrator Vernon Jones said Thursday he will enter the contest, and former state Sen. Ken Gordon said he’s considering it. Former city council member Happy Haynes, who has close ties to the DPS administration and Mayor-elect Michael Hancock, and Park Hill business consultant Roger Kilgore are in already.

Denver pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli said Gordon could bring political savvy and name recognition to the race and be a strong candidate for union interests. Ciruli also said it’s possible the other candidates could split voters who support current DPS school reform policies.

Gordon told Education News Colorado Friday that he’s looking at the race, but “I have not made a decision.” He added that he thinks he needs to decide “sooner rather than later.”

A lawyer, Gordon was elected in 1992 to the Colorado House, where he served as minority leader. He later served in the Senate, where he was majority leader before being term-limited in 2008. He represented districts in far southeast Denver. In 2006 he narrowly lost the secretary of state race to Republican Mike Coffman, now a congressman. Observers expect he would have labor backing in a board race.

Jones said Thursday he is running for the seat being vacated by the term-limited Theresa Peña. He’s a Manual High School administrator who this fall will become director of community engagement. In 2009 Jones narrowly lost the District 4 seat in Far Northeast Denver to current board president Nate Easley.

Ciruli thinks a Gordon candidacy would change the contest’s dynamics.

“Where the unions have mostly failed to produce in their efforts to get control of the board, Ken would be a really credible candidate,” he said.

Past candidates “have walked into it without some name ID, or some natural talent or career that lends themselves to it, and so consequently they have spent a lot of money and only had limited success,” said Ciruli. Labor interests “have won a few seats, but the people they’ve elected have not been able to carry the day.”

Ken Gordon
Ken Gordon

By contrast, he said, “Gordon comes in with a pretty good name ID, lots of credibility in the Democratic Party and a good facility at communication. Ken would potentially get all the labor vote and support. He would be formidable.”

Ciruli also said if Haynes, Jones, and possibly Kilgore were viewed by voters as more reform-minded, they could split that vote and create the potential for a successful run by Gordon.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said, “This is a personal decision. Ken Gordon needs to make that decision. We would definitely welcome the involvement.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the district’s reform agenda currently enjoy the support of a 4-3 board majority, and the Nov. 1 election is seen as a crossroads for his administration.

District 2 board member Andrea Merida, a frequent critic of current district policies, took time out from a yard sale Friday to discuss a potential Gordon candidacy.

“He’s being very coy with me as well, and that’s okay,” said Merida.

“If he threw in, I think he gets right to the core of things, and he’s not going to be swayed, he’s not going to be bullied,” she added. “He would be an incredibly compelling candidate. … I would be incredibly honored to serve with him. And I’m sure he’d be teaching me a few things.”

Merida also had positive remarks about Jones, who in his previous campaign was seen as a supporter of the Boasberg reform agenda.

In 2009, Merida said, “Vernon and I were supposedly in different camps. But, I have grown to have a lot of respect for Vernon. He has his heart in the right place. I don’t know many people who are as dedicated to the Northeast community, and, really, all the kids in Denver, be they African-American, Latino, or whatever.”

Vernon Jones
Vernon Jones

She was non-committal on whom she might support. “It would be a tough call. It would come down to the viability of the campaigns,” said Merida, “because we want to win.”

Peña declined to comment publicly on the contest to replace her but did offer thoughts on what she feels is at stake.

“I would hope the Denver electorate would look at these three or four candidates, and ask, do they have an understanding of the Denver Plan?” she said. “Do they understand the strategies we’re using to close the achievement gap, to lower the dropout rate, and do they believe in the leadership of Tom Boasberg to execute that plan?

“I believe in all the above, and I believe I have three colleagues who don’t,” referring to Merida and members Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan. “My hope would be that the Denver community understands that firing the superintendent and starting over is not only harmful to kids and teachers, but it creates a school district that would be mediocre for the next generation of kids.

“If you get a new board, and they don’t like the plans for reform and fire this superintendent, that only harms the teachers and students.”

She hopes the election will end the current 4-3 split on the board.

“You need people on the board who can work together, because working in a 4-3 environment has tarnished the reputation of the Denver school board,” she said. “That’s harmful, because if this district wants to go for a bond or mill levy in a few years, you don’t want the district (board) to be a distraction. For me, a 4-3 vote is untenable.”

The at-large seat is one of three on the ballot this fall. Incumbent Jiminez in District 5 (northwest Denver) is seeking a second term and is being challenged by Jennifer Draper Carson. Bruce Hoyt is term-limited in District 1. Announced candidates so far in the southeast Denver district are Frank Deserino, Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota.

Jimenez wouldn’t comment on specific candidates but said, “I can say that I am very encouraged. I think the more candidates that are interested, the better the choices that Denver voters have. I’m not going to take a position either way on any of the individuals. But I think this is good news, to have a good, diverse slate of candidates.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede