what's next?

With all ballots finally counted, the outcome is clear: A return to differences of opinion on the Denver school board

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

When new members are sworn in later this month, the Denver school board will gain something it hasn’t had, to any significant degree, in two years: dissenting voices.

Two candidates who disagree with some of Denver Public Schools’ more controversial improvement strategies won seats Tuesday, according to final unofficial returns posted Thursday night, in a hard-fought election that featured more negativity than usual. Two candidates who agree with the district’s direction also won seats, meaning the seven-member board will retain its majority in favor of policies such as universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg sounded a positive note about the results, emphasizing the winning candidates’ similarities instead of their differences.

“A natural and healthy part of elections is for folks to have a real vigorous competition of ideas,” he said. “An equally important, if not more important, part is that after the elections, folks come together, continue to debate and discuss very vigorously and recognize there’s lots in common.”

He added that “so much of what (the district is) doing — around early literacy, teacher leadership and social justice — I think you’ll see a very high degree of support for.”

School board president Anne Rowe said she believes the prevailing candidates “care deeply about our kids and want to work hard to continue to push this district forward.”

“I see us continuing forward on the path we are on,” she said. “And when you talk about the values and what we all care about, I think folks would be in agreement on those things.”

The four candidates who won Tuesday’s election include one incumbent, Barbara O’Brien, and three newcomers: Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián and Carrie A. Olson. While the three hold differing policy opinions, they have one thing in common: They’ve all been at the front of a classroom. Bacon and Cobián are former teachers, while Olson is a current teacher.

Olson and Bacon were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has pushed back against a district policy to close low-performing schools and called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Cobián was not endorsed by the union. She and O’Brien were backed by groups that support the district’s strategy, which includes cultivating a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools and more autonomous schools — and encouraging families to choose between them.

Tuesday’s election was a reversal of fortunes for the union, whose political influence had eroded over the years. In 2009, the board was split between a vocal three-member minority backed by the union and a four-member majority who supported the district’s direction. By 2013, the union had lost two seats, resulting in a board split 6-to-1. And in 2015, no union-backed candidates won. For the past two years, the board has frequently voted 7-0 in support of DPS proposals.

Union president Henry Roman said that in this year’s election, “Denver voters affirmed their commitment to public education and their support for our students.”

Backers of the district’s strategies faced a challenging electoral environment: Donald Trump’s election, and his elevation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, enlivened progressive activists and voters — a bloc that includes members and supporters of labor unions.

Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, said the major takeaway is not that union-backed candidates won two seats on a seven-member board, but that the pro-reform members hung onto their majority.

“The opponents of that agenda needed to win all-out here,” Baxter said. That they didn’t, he said, means the debates may be more heated but the outcomes will be the same.

Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform group that endorsed O’Brien and Cobián, said the organization is pleased overall with the election results and doesn’t expect “a significant shift in where the district is headed.” An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Stand spent money to elect pro-reform candidates.

On the other side, Scott Gilpin, a parent active in a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools that opposes the district’s portfolio strategy, said the election didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Just one of the candidates the group endorsed, Olson, prevailed.

An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Our Denver, Our Schools spent money, too, to elect its candidates, though its war chest was nowhere near the size of those of pro-reform groups, a factor Gilpin said “makes a huge difference.”

“We were hoping to win four seats; we won one seat,” he said. “I don’t consider that a victory.”

Olson, who has been a DPS teacher for 33 years and currently works at West Leadership Academy, faces a significant hurdle to joining the board. A district policy adopted in 1987 prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving because it would present a conflict of interest.

Olson said that “the first thing I’d like to do is speak with my six new colleagues about revisiting this 30-year-old policy and seeing if we can revise that, because I think the people have spoken very clearly that they want educators on the school board.”

The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 27, and the board has two meetings scheduled before then. But board president Rowe said Wednesday the board is not scheduled to discuss the policy at those meetings.

“There is a precedent that employees of the district do not serve on a board of education,” Rowe said. “There are really sound reasons why that makes sense.”

The election attracted a degree of national attention given that Denver is known nationally for its reform strategies. Even though the board majority held, the outcome should be a lesson to supporters of school choice and charter schools that teachers unions and other opponents can effectively mobilize in a low-turnout election, said consultant and author David Osborne, who wrote admiringly of DPS’s strategies in a new book about reforming education systems.

“It just underlines what I think we all know, which is you have to keep your eye on the political ball and you have to win the political battle over and over and over,” said Osborne, director of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.

Echoing others, Osborne said he thinks the Trump presidency may make it more difficult for pro-reform candidates to prevail. “It may turn many Democrats away from charter schools because Trump supports them,” he said. “I do worry about that and it could be happening.”

Observers said it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of efforts to tie local pro-reform candidates to Trump and DeVos, who is unpopular in Denver. Union-backed political committees sent mailers depicting Cobián and incumbent Rachele Espiritu as Trump allies, a claim they vehemently rejected. Cobián won her race to represent southwest Denver, while Espiritu, an appointee running for re-election in northeast Denver, lost hers.

In the three-person race to represent the city at-large, the campaign of candidate Robert Speth sent a mailer comparing incumbent Barbara O’Brien to DeVos.

O’Brien benefited from having more than one opposition candidate challenging her: She won 40.5 percent of the vote, while Speth garnered about 35 percent and former teacher Julie Bañuelos won 23 percent. Bañuelos earned a significant share of the vote considering she ran a shoestrings campaign with no support from outside groups, including those funded by teachers unions.

The only race that didn’t feature such a mailer — or much drama at all — was the contest between Olson and incumbent Mike Johnson to represent central-east Denver. That race was the closest in early returns, but Olson’s lead kept growing as more ballots were counted and she ended up defeating Johnson 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Johnson-Olson race also attracted the least amount of money from independent political committees attempting to sway voters, according to campaign finance reports that tracked spending through Election Day, and less attention from organizations that marshal volunteers to knock on doors.

Students for Education Reform Action Network, which deploys high school and college students to canvass, sat out that race entirely. Though Johnson supports reform, the organization did not endorse any candidate in central-east Denver, a wealthier and less diverse part of the city. A spokeswoman explained it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

The Denver and statewide teachers unions weren’t very active in the race, either. Though the union endorsed Olson, it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on helping elect two other candidates: Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who lost to Cobián in southwest Denver, and Bacon, who defeated Espiritu and another challenger, Tay Anderson, in northeast Denver.

The region represented by the northeast Denver seat is large and includes neighborhoods with a wide range of income levels and racial diversity, including historically African-American neighborhoods and new developments that have attracted a lot of white families.

A map produced by the Denver Elections Division before the final unofficial results were posted showed Bacon won precincts in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Montbello, where she lives, and in closer-in northeast neighborhoods including Northeast Park Hill. Espiritu won in precincts in the Stapleton neighborhood, where she lives.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”