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Will the DPS Board Flip?

Term Limits Set Stage For New School Leadership in November

It’s that time of year again. Nine candidates are running for three open board positions for Denver Public Schools.

In Greater Park Hill, voters will weigh in on just one of the races – the at-large position to replace Allegra “Happy” Haynes, who is term limited. Other seats are contested in District 1 (in southeast Denver) and District 5 (in northwest Denver).

Tay Anderson

Two years ago, Denver voters elected Carrie Olson in District 3 and Jennifer Bacon in District 4, both of which include portions of Park Hill. Barbara O’Brien was re-elected as an at-large representative, and Angela Cobián won a seat in District 2 (southwest Denver).  

The election of Bacon and Olson was seen as an upset to the 7-0 majority of education “reformers” that had previously controlled the board. This year, with three seats up for grabs, some activists have been calling for the board to “flip” – making the reformers a minority bloc. 

What’s education reform?

Education reform is a national movement backed by philanthropists and politicians in both major political parties. Locally, reform was aggressively implemented for a decade by former DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, who stepped down a year ago. 

Natela Alexandrovna Manuntseva

The reform mantra is to create market-based competition between schools, eliminating those that are under-achieving. Focused on student achievement measured through data from high-stakes testing, DPS has in recent years closed numerous schools it labeled “low-performing” – mostly affecting students of color and those afflicted by poverty.

In Denver, reformers had aimed to have at least 80 percent of students attending high-performing schools by the year 2020, as measured by using the district’s School Performance Framework. 

The 2018 SPF report shows, however, that only 42 percent of DPS schools ranked as high-scoring “blue” or “green” in the district’s color coded system. The full color spectrum for school performance includes Distinguished (blue), Meeting Expectations (green), Accredited on Watch (yellow), Accredited on Priority Watch (orange), and Accredited on Probation (red).

Alexis Menocal Harrigan, with her son, Isaac

Denver’s SPF has been highly criticized by many education advocates for its emphasis on growth over achievement, for constantly shifting the goal posts, for being overly complicated, for duplicating a state-level system, and for its high cost. As a result of these concerns, the district’s new superintendent, Susana Cordova, has convened a 30-person task force to re-evaluate and re-imagine the SPF. (For more on this, check out last December’s column at greaterparkhill.org/2018/12/choices-based-on-a-flawed-system/.)

As a sign that tides are changing, Democrats for Education Reform – which had been heavily involved in previous board elections – appears to be sitting this one out. 

Two years ago the reform group spent more than $400,000 on local board elections through its political action committee Education Reform Now. This year the group issued a statement saying it will not be helping to fund campaigns, directly or indirectly, in the upcoming Nov. 5 election. 

Given this political context, where do this year’s crop of candidates stand? 

2019 At-Large Candidates

Three candidates are running for the at-large position: Tay Anderson, Natela Alexandrovna Manuntseva  and Alexis Menocal Harrigan. 

Tay Anderson, who ran for the District 4 position in 2017, is now back with multiple endorsements, including the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the Denver Area Labor Federation, the Network for Public Education, and Vote Pro Choice. In addition, he has endorsements from U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette, who represents Denver, as well as Congressman Jason Crow from Aurora and Congressman Joe Neguse from Boulder. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has endorsed Anderson, as has former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former legislators Joe Salazar and Evie Hudak. 

Anderson is a graduate of Manual High School and is currently the restorative justice coordinator at North High School. He stood on the picket lines with teachers in February when they were striking and attended negotiation meetings until the wee hours of the morning to show his support for teachers. 

We asked Anderson about his two top priorities. His response: he wants to tackle the choice system and the (pre)school-to-prison pipeline. A product of school choice himself, Anderson sees its benefits but wonders, “Why do some kids have to ‘choose’ a good education and play a lottery to see if they get in? I think if you look at the current patterns and match them with historical ones, it is easy to see why: Students of color and poor students do not get the right to a good education, they get a false ‘choice.’ ”

Anderson also wants to eliminate discipline discrimination that disproportionally impacts children of color and channels them into a prison pipeline. 

“Most schools now have a police officer present in their buildings, so school altercations that used to result in a note home to your parents, now all too often result in arrests and the criminalization of our youth,” he says. “To solve this problem, I would start by putting more counselors in schools, eliminating zero tolerance policies, evaluating teachers based on student support instead of just test scores, and implementing curricula that counteract the negative messages students of color internalize about their heritage and potential.”

Anderson is advocating for students, including, notably, for female students by calling for an end to “period poverty” in Denver’s schools. Specifically, he wants to ensure that young women should not have to miss class because they lack access to women’s hygiene products. 

He is also advocating for every DPS middle and high school to have at least one gender-neutral bathroom. 

“Our students should never struggle at school because of hate. It is that simple,” he says. 

Natela Alexandrovna Manuntseva came to the U.S. as a refugee with her family, fleeing religious and political persecution from Uzbekistan. She arrived here speaking no English and made her way through the public education system. 

“The public school system forever positively impacted my life – and I will not forget that lesson on our school board,” according to her website.

After high school, Manuntseva attended Metropolitan State University of Denver, and received a Bachelors degree in political science with an emphasis on communication. She is currently the national campaign manager for KeVita, which is the parent company for Kombucha Brands, which makes probiotic drinks. 

Manuntseva entered the race late and has no campaign endorsements to date. 

Asked about her two top priorities, her campaign consultant, Aaron Novy, emailed the following: 

“One thing I will focus on is bridging the divide between immigrant families and the community as a whole. I myself came to Denver as a refugee – speaking zero English, and having missed out on a lot of early education. One out of every three students in a DPS school is a non-native English speaker. This means parents who can’t understand their child’s homework, family members who rely on translated government paperwork, and stress on a student who might not understand what is going on around them. We at DPS need a school board member who lived that experience to bring about common sense, understanding, and compassion to working with these students who will become future community leaders. 

“One of the other bigger issues I discuss is making sure our students have career role models – by that, I mean someone that inspires them to think bigger. As a CASA volunteer, one of the children I worked with told me her goal is to become a Chili’s waitress. It really upset me that she didn’t see the world of career possibilities ahead. As part of your DPS community, I will use my contacts with artists, farmers, business leaders and other working professionals to come into our schools and explain what they do for work, how to get these jobs, and what our students need to do to get to have these awesome careers. With positive role models, I believe we can have more student success and better schools for all.”

Alexis Menocal Harrigan, a former Daniels scholar, first worked as an AmeriCorps member providing academic in-school support and after school enrichment programs for students who lived in the North Lincoln Homes and attended DPS elementary schools.

Menocal Harrigan was former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s education and human service policy advisor during his last year in office. The candidate is currently the director of state government affairs for Code.org, a nonprofit that seeks to expand access to computer science in schools. She is a former DPS student, now a DPS parent. 

Menocal Harrigan is endorsed by the reform groups Stand for Children Colorado and Students for Education Reform, as well as current DPS board members Angela Cobián, Barbara O’Brien and Anne Rowe. She also has endorsements from State Sen. Julie Gonzales, Denver Councilwomen Amanda Sandoval, Jamie Torres and Kendra Black, and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. 

Her website focuses on community empowered schools, including less of a top-down approach and more focus on equity in access. Her support for teachers includes a focus on teacher retention, predictable pay, and increasing affordable housing for teachers. 

In her response to the Greater Park Hill News, Menocal Harrigan identified her two top priorities: “I will commit to increasing resources at all our schools. Our teachers and school communities deserve adequate resources and supports. As an at-large member, I am committed to supporting statewide initiatives like Prop CC to increase access to funding for education statewide. Additionally, I am committed to ensuring that school funding is closest to the classroom and that we are responsible with taxpayer dollars. 

“Additionally, I believe strongly that we need to create more intentional systems of equity across our district. Currently, we have one of the most shameful opportunity gaps in the country and we must be ensuring that every student that walks through the doors of DPS, they deserve to have access to an education that prepares them for a life of opportunity. As a board member, I will commit to holding the district accountable for serving all students equitably.” 

On the issue of what is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, Menocal Harrigan’s website states, “DPS is headed in the right direction by requiring all teachers to take implicit bias training, but we still have a long way to go. Let’s allow our schools to be the community focal points they should be, by encouraging positive role models, parents and guardians to feel welcome supporting our students in school, empowering our students as a community, and holding our students accountable.”

Other DPS board races

Park Hill residents can only vote in the at-large race this year, as the other candidates are running to represent districts in other parts of the city. However, the winners of the other races will eventually play a role in all of Denver’s schools. 

In District 1, Scott Baldermann, Radhika Nath and Diana Romero Campbell are running. 

In District 5, Julie Bañuelos, Tony Curcio and Bradley Laurvick are vying for the seat. 

Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campell and Curcio, seen as potential reformers, have accepted $30,000 in campaign contributions by Ronald Williams, former president and CEO of the Denver-based oil and gas company Gary-Williams. As reported by Chalkbeat, an online education news organization, Williams has also supported past campaigns of school board candidates who support education reforms. 

As of Sept. 16 campaign filings, both Anderson and Menocal Harrigan listed a significant number of donors. Manuntseva identified only four contributions, totaling $2,372.    

Lynn Kalinauskas is chair of the education committee for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

Make Your Vote Count

Ballots Will Be Mailed Oct. 15, Election Day Is Nov. 5

Whether or not the board “flips” will be up to voters. Ballots will be mailed to all Denver voters on Oct. 15, and vote centers open on Oct. 28. All ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, which is Tuesday, Nov. 5. 

The outcome of the election will impact over 92,000 students and their families, more than 6,000 teachers and over 200 schools. These are your tax dollars. Have a voice in how they are used.  

Tay Anderson’s campaign website is www.tayanderson.org. 

Natela Manuntseva’s campaign website is www.natelaforcolorado.com

Alexis Menocal Harrigan’s campaign website is www.alexisfordps.com.

Additional resources: Check out the May 2018 Education Update in the Greater Park Hill News for more about how the Colorado Democratic State Assembly voted to have the word “Democrats” removed from “Democrats for Education Reform”. 

To register to vote, check your voter status, and additional information about how and where to vote, check out the Denver Clerk & Recorder’s website via denvervotes.org.

Additional resources: Check out the May 2018 Education Update in the Greater Park Hill News for more about how the Colorado Democratic State Assembly voted to have the word “Democrats” removed from “Democrats for Education Reform.


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