Editor’s note: Although the Denver mayor has no legal authority over the city’s public schools, education reform was a major issue in the first round of the current mayoral election. Now that Michael Hancock and Chris Romer are engaged in the runoff campaign, education has become less prominent an issue. This is perhaps because the two candidates do not differ significantly in their proposed education policies. Still, some Denver Public Schools board members have been vocal in their support of one candidate or the other. We asked two board members to answer some questions about their endorsements. Mary Seawell explains why she backs Hancock and Andrea Merida discusses her support of Romer.
1. If your candidate is elected mayor, what role would you like to see him play in Denver Public Schools?
Merida: I would like Chris Romer to turbo-charge the current partnerships DPS currently enjoys with the city, such as the Lights on After Dark Program, the community resource officers stationed at schools (changing their role to a more restorative justice tack and the City covering the cost), the recycling program, school-based clinics and more. I would also like him to use his deep, native-born knowledge of Denver to advocate on behalf of Denver’s families and to help the superintendent understand the composition and economic realities of its neighborhoods. I would like him to work with me on putting together the framework for a single-payer health care system to be used by Denver and DPS employees, as well as by city residents; using the network of school-based and community clinics as the backbone. Let’s focus more resources on serving Denver’s families and not as much on overhead.
Seawell: As Mayor, Michael Hancock’s role will be as a critical friend and partner to DPS just as he has been during his years on City Council. Michael listens. He verifies. He reaches out. And then he fights full force for what he knows is right. He is a collaborator but not afraid to disagree with anyone. He always asks for more from the people around him to think differently and better.
Michael loves Denver and wants our city to be strong civically and economically. He knows to be a great city it takes a world-class education system. His plan called the “Denver Education Compact” will make sure the private, public and nonprofit sectors are dedicating more resources and support to our children. Michael will utilize city services to create more efficiency with DPS operations, including plans to appoint a school’s liaison to help streamline services. As he has done while on City Council, Michael will not just listen to DPS but he will listen and reach out to communities to understand their needs and push the District to create high quality educational options for every child in Denver.
2. Former Mayor John Hickenlooper was primarily a cheerleader for ex-superintendents Jerry Wartgow and Michael Bennet, and current Superintendnet Tom Boasberg. Is this the best role for a mayor? If not, what is?
Seawell: A cheerleader suggests someone who will cheer even as their team is losing. Michael will not allow any of us to lose when it comes to our children, including the superintendent of DPS. He will not make excuses if DPS does not implement reforms well. I know if I am not doing my job as a school board member, he will let me know that Denver expects more from me, even publicly, until I do everything possible to improve our schools.
Denver needs our mayor to walk a delicate balance of supporting our public schools while challenging everyone to do better. The mayor has a platform to push, confront, cajole, and demand that the district is doing everything possible to improve our schools. A mayor can also make a tremendous difference in school board races. The mayor’s voice matters.
Merida: The better role for the mayor, in my opinion, is to be an advocate for the residents of Denver, especially given that the current superintendent is not one. The mayor lends credibility to such advocacy. Further, the mayor is in a unique position to help lobby for more school-business partnerships to strengthen the bonds with our schools and offer our students access to real-world work experience.
3. Neither candidate has absolutely ruled out the possibility of pushing for mayoral control under the right conditions. What differences do you see between their positions on this and how big a role did it play in your endorsement?
Merida: Chris Romer, having extensive legislative experience, knows that Colorado prefers local control of school districts by elected boards. The difference between Chris Romer and his opponent is that Chris is 100 percent clear on the scenario that would have to exist before even considering something so drastic. He has stated that we would have had to have “lost hope for improving the district” first, putting the focus squarely on student achievement. Chris is aware of the mixed results other urban cities have shown under mayoral control and is much more cognizant of the complexity of education reform. In contrast, Chris’ opponent told The Denver Post that personality issues would justify the takeover of the school district (“when chaos and dysfunction reigns to the point where clearly private agendas are overwhelming the mission,” The Denver Post on
4/3/11), clearly showing a weak grasp on the concept of a deliberative body. To Chris, “mayoral control” are not just buzz words to be bandied about when elected officials disagree on policy, and this has impacted my decision to endorse him.
Seawell: I do not support mayoral control because the data on mayoral control districts does not show it positively impacts academic achievement. In addition, the process of converting districts to mayoral control becomes the focus instead of the academic growth and achievement in our schools. Michael knows this, he has seen the data, he has said he supports the direction DPS is headed and he has stated he will not support mayoral control unless the district was in a state of chaos, which DPS is not. I think there are no sacred cows, and while I don’t support mayoral control I want people who will put anything on the table if it means helping our schools.
4. Speaking only of education, why did you decide to endorse your candidate over his opponent? Please be as specific as possible.
Seawell: Too often in education reform we debate ideas, but we don’t focus on the difficult time-consuming work it takes to improve schools. I have sat side-by-side with Michael Hancock in school cafeterias and gymnasiums as he listened to people describe their dreams for better schools and their fears for their children being in failing schools. I have watched in moments of seemingly total impasse Michael bring forward ways to find solutions. Two specific examples:
- During the months of community work in Far Northeast, Michael Hancock was the only person (now running for mayor) who came to community meetings and took an active role in this issue. He was not there to support DPS, the superintendent or certain board members. He was there to support children and families who deserve better than being trapped in schools that had being failing for many years, schools where too many believed success was not possible.
- When the Stapleton community was in meltdown, because there were not enough seats to accommodate the exploding growth of children, Michael convened community meetings and brought DPS, the City, Denver Urban Renewal Authority and Forest City to the table until they figured out a solution that would open a new school quickly but keep the cost burden on Stapleton.
Michael knows success is possible in any school and in any neighborhood in Denver. He supports the Dream Act and the right of DPS graduates to receive in-state tuition regardless of legal status. Finally, Michael knows in order to have true social justice and equality, we must have an education system that can educate any child regardless of his or her family’s income level.
Merida: As I have stated on my blog, there are four major reasons I chose to endorse Chris Romer:
- He has pushed for legislation that strengthens families, such as payday lending reform and foreclosure deferment. To me, this is important, since poverty and transience have deep negative effects on student achievement.
- His concurrent enrollment legislation has made college affordable and accessible, regardless of ability to pay or legal residency status, for both neighborhood school and charter students alike. My Lincoln, Kennedy and Southwest Early College students all benefit from concurrent enrollment.
- Even his focus on charter schools have been for the benefit of minority, low-income students.
- He fought the good fight for tuition equity, which would have been game-changing legislation for entire families in southwest Denver. He has been a consistent friend to Latinos.
In short, Chris Romer has consistently shown not only concern for the economic strength of Denver families, but has also acted swiftly and decisively to support them. This concern is a core value that Denver’s mayor must hold. This is the paradigm in which the mayor must operate, especially given the deep structural deficit our city faces that could threaten crucial support for the poorest of Denver’s families.
5. What is your biggest concern about your candidate’s opponent on education issues?
Merida: My biggest concern about Chris Romer’s opponent, with regard to education issues, is a seeming lack of regard for the impact of education reform on Northeast Denver families and the persistent silence toward the growing presence of Spanish-dominant Latino families in that sector of the city. Additionally, as a practicing Roman Catholic, it is incumbent upon me to clarify how my faith might interfere with health curriculum or the availability of reproductive services at schools (it doesn’t). Therefore, the two recent statements made by Romer’s opponent that appear to reflect a conservative Christian ideology must be carefully considered when choosing leadership for a city with a strong tradition of women leaders and a vibrant and open LGBTQQ community.
Seawell: Chris and Michael share some core philosophical beliefs about education. Both are education reformers, but a great mayor doesn’t just need a philosophy, he or she needs a visceral understanding of what failing means to our most vulnerable children. As a child who went to Cole Middle School and graduated from Manual and as a parent of DPS students, Michael’s commitment did not get formed in a conference room. I worry Chris won’t support hard choices if it means risking political popularity.
Also, I am not sure how effective Chris would be in pushing the district around implementation. I’m not sure he understands the DPS structure like Michael does. For example, Michael helped Peter Groff to write the Innovation Schools Act. He recognizes that the power of schools gaining innovation status is not just freedom from some of the provisions of the union contract. He knows some schools also need greater autonomy from the district itself. Chris criticizes Michael for being experienced in government but to change a system a person needs to know and understand the mechanics first. I’m concerned Chris doesn’t understand either city or district systems and won’t know how/where to push for reforming either.
6. Without sounding like an answer-dodging PR flack, please tell me what is the greatest concern or biggest question you have about your candidate on education issues?
Seawell: It’s actually a question I have for both candidates – vouchers. I care deeply about progressive social issues. Allowing public funds to go to a private school which: a) has any religious affiliation, b) is not required to meet the same accountability and academic standards as public schools, and c) has tuition higher than the value of the voucher thus making it a program out of reach for low-income children is a not acceptable to me. I would like to know where both candidates stand on vouchers.
Merida: Chris and I have the same concerns about education, but we sometimes don’t agree on the same solutions. My biggest concern is that he and I will lose the wide-open dialog conduit we have always had because of the new challenges that will confront him upon election. Chris has always been willing to “mix it up” with me about what works, what doesn’t and how we can do better for kids. It’s a relationship that I value greatly and would be loath to give up because of schedule conflicts.
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