Denver schools declare early victory

Updated at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Denver school leaders aren’t going to waste too much time celebrating voter approval of a bond issue and property tax measure that will bring a record $515 million into district coffers.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talked Tuesday night with reporters about the district’s successful passage of a $466 million bond issue and a $49 million operating tax increase. Photo / Joe Mahoney

Wednesday, school board President Mary Seawell said work would begin soon to set up the two oversight committees charged with evaluating projects and programs to be funded via the $466 million bond issue and $49 million operating tax increase.

Seawell said each board member will be asked to come up with candidates for the committees, as will Superintendent Tom Boasberg, and a notice will be put out to the community at large to gauge interest.

The school board will then hash out names in a work session. Under language already approved by the board, consensus must be reached on the committee make-up. With a board that often splits 4-3 on key votes, consensus could take some time.

“The plan is to put applications out and post them and see who’s interested,” Seawell said.

Seawell said the board would likely vote on the committee memberships at its regular Dec. 20 meeting. Michael Kiley, a DPS parent and critic of the bond, has said he hoped a range of opinions would be reflected on each oversight committee.

Kiley added that he believed the bond would fund some important projects and “for that, I’m happy.”  Seawell said those building projects will be underway soon and shovels could be hitting dirt as early as January.

“We have projects that need to start immediately in order for them to be open and ready,” she said. “It’ll be fast.”

While the economic climate isn’t what it was a few years ago, she said the district can still take advantage of lower construction costs on building projects.

Backers of the two ballot questions celebrated early Tuesday evening. That’s because Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Seawell and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock declared victory in the basement of the Irish Snug on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver just after the polls closed at 7 p.m.

“This is absolutely tremendous,” Boasberg said. “Every kid in this city wakes up tomorrow morning with a brighter future as a result of these measures.”

Seawell acknowledged the combined $515 million tax package “was a big ask.”

“The voters came through in a big way to say this matters to our city,” she said. “We know now some of the things that really work for education. 3A is going to support those initiatives, 3B makes sure we have the right facilities and schools to do that work in.”

While leaders in the aging urban district said it needed new buildings and boilers and more money for programs to make up for a string of state budget cuts coupled with growing enrollment, the package known as 3A and 3B wasn’t necessarily an easy sell.

For one, voters were still reeling from economic uncertainty, the likes of which made it tough for Colorado districts to convince voters to pony up during the presidential election four years ago. Only half the bond issues placed on Colorado ballots in 2008 passed. But Denver bucked that trend four years ago, with voters approving a then record-setting $454 Denver Public Schools bond measure by 2-to-1 margin. The question was, would they do it again?

For four voters interviewed near the closing hour Tuesday at a downtown polling place, St. John’s Cathedral, the answer was ‘yes.’

Deanne Stokes, 73, said her daughter once taught in Denver Public Schools and she believes “the schools need it.”

She also said she believes district leaders presented a good plan, noting, “I respect our leadership.”

Zach Buckendahl, 20, voted for the two DPS ballot measures even though he knew little about them before he walked into the polling place.

“I think education is really important,” he said, “but it could also be better.”

Another voter, C. Howard Hall, 57, also voted yes on both measures: “It’s like the old cliché, our children are our future.”

This year, two of seven Denver school board members voted against placing the bond issue on the ballot. And one of those board members, Arturo Jimenez, actively campaigned against it – even putting $500 into the No on 3B campaign, although he said he supported the operating tax increase.

All told, the No on 3B campaign drummed up $1,890 in cash contributions.

Together for Denver’s Schools, the campaign committee supporting the ballot measures, had raised $555,188 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline Nov. 2. Individual donors of note included Denver school board members Jeanne Kaplan at $500, Happy Haynes at $300 and Nate Easley at $200 while Boasberg kicked in $1,000.

Kiley, who spoke publicly against the bond issue, pointed out the preliminary margin of approval for the operating increase was larger than that for the bond.

“Even though the pro side put in almost half a million dollars to support these measures, people were still able to differentiate between the two,” he said.

Property tax bills are expected to increase $5 per month or $62 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value.

Board member Easley called the approval of the ballot measures “a mandate for school reform.”

“The people have spoken,” he said. “I don’t think we need to apologize for school reform anymore.”

Board member Anne Rowe also said, “Denver believes in what we’re doing for kids.”

Meanwhile, board member Haynes said the voting “proves the people of Denver will do what it takes to make our schools the best they can be. It’s not about the politics.”

But Haynes added, “It isn’t a free pass” and the district must now carry through with its spending plans.

Daeja Rossi, a sixth-grader at Denver’s Lake International Academy, a turnaround school. District leaders said passage of its ballot measures would expand a successful math tutoring program to schools such as Lake.

The bond issue is expected to provide $230 million for facility maintenance, $119 million to build six new schools and $78 million to renovate and expand existing schools. The operating tax increase is to provide, among other initiatives, $13 million for early childhood education and $11 million for enrichment programs, such as arts, music, physical education.

Critics complained the bond would not funnel enough money into older district neighborhood schools, even as it built a new high school to serve students in the relatively affluent Stapleton development.

Another steady refrain from opponents was that the district shouldn’t absorb any more debt. Question 3B asked whether DPS’s debt should be increased by $466 million, with a maximum repayment cost of $738 million.

Critics lumped the district’s pension debt with debt that would be accrued by the district if the bond passed. But school officials said the 2012 bond was a separate matter and would be guaranteed – by taxpayers.

“Under state law, voters must approve the full amount of repayment before you can even issue the bonds,” Boasberg said.

Approval of the operating tax increase also means the first cost-of-living increase for Denver teachers in years under an agreement reached in June between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Denver teachers are slated to receive a 1 percent cost-of-living raise retroactive to Sept. 1.

The raise isn’t listed among the tax projects; instead, district leaders say it could be funded because the ballot measure will free up general fund dollars that would have gone to other needs.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”