By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat
Three former Denver students are running for an at-large seat on a school board that will help shape how the Denver school district approaches improving education for all students.
Alexis Menocal Harrigan attended elementary school in Denver before moving to the northern suburbs in search of schools that her parents, immigrants from Mexico, thought would be better.
Menocal Harrigan, 32, returned to Denver Public Schools as an Americorps volunteer and then an employee, acting for a time as a liaison between the city and the schools. She now works for a nonprofit organization called Code.org and is the parent of a Denver kindergartner.
Tay Anderson attended high school in Denver after moving to Colorado from Kansas. He graduated from Denver’s storied Manual High School and first ran for school board at age 19.
After losing that race, Anderson, 21, resolved to run again. He now works at Denver’s North High School as a restorative practices coordinator, helping students resolve conflicts. He also advises the student council and coaches the debate team.
Natela Manuntseva attended middle school in Denver after arriving in Colorado as a refugee from Uzbekistan nearly 20 years ago. A school boundary change meant she was reassigned to the Cherry Creek School District, where she finished her public education. Manuntseva, 30, now works in marketing for a national kombucha company, and also teaches acting and modeling.
The at-large seat is one of three Denver school board seats up for grabs on Nov. 5. Because the at-large seat represents the entire city, every voter may cast a ballot in this race.
Denver Public Schools is at a crossroads. With a new superintendent at the helm and no incumbent school board members running for re-election, the 93,000-student district could move away from the education reforms that dominated the previous superintendent’s long tenure.
Whether the reforms were successful is hotly debated. While student test scores have risen, big gaps still exist between the scores of white students and students of color.
Some of the more controversial reforms have included closing schools with low student test scores, and opening new schools — often smaller and sharing space in district buildings — that officials thought could do better. The school board makes those decisions. It is also responsible for setting district policy, hiring and firing the superintendent, and approving the district budget.
The three at-large candidates agree on many issues: that students take too many standardized tests, that teachers should be respected and paid a livable wage, and that the district needs to better serve its many immigrant students and students of color.
But there are also important issues on which they disagree. The two candidates with the most support and best funded campaigns — Anderson and Menocal Harrigan — disagree on whether school choice and charter schools have helped or hurt Denver students.
About a quarter of Denver’s more than 200 schools are charter schools, which are publicly funded and run by independent boards. Denver’s charters include some of the district’s top-performing schools, and charter proponents say the schools’ autonomy allows them to offer a diversity of learning experiences. The teachers union generally opposes charter schools because it says they siphon students and money from traditional public schools.
Denver Public Schools has facilitated enrollment in charter schools by adopting a unified enrollment system that allows families to fill out a single form to request their child attend any school — district-run or charter — other than the one to which they’re assigned.
Anderson, who used school choice as a student, has criticized the choice system for creating winners and losers, especially since the district doesn’t always provide transportation.
“It’s benefiting those who can actually obtain it, those who are able to get up every morning and go to a school across the city,” Anderson said at a candidate forum. “However, those students who are left without choices in their neighborhood, it’s hurting them.”
He has also criticized charter schools as opaque and said they play by different rules. Charters get waivers from certain state and district rules about hiring and firing teachers, for example, or whether teachers must be licensed — a system Anderson has said is unfair.
“We can no longer have a system where our schools that are charter schools are adhering to different rules,” he said at a forum. “If you have our kids in Denver, you must abide by our rules.”
Menocal Harrigan emphatically supports school choice and charter schools. Her stance is derived partly from the choices her parents made for her, she said, and partly from her experience as a mother of two very different boys, one cautious and the other daring.
“As a mom of two different types of learners, I believe that parents should have a variety of public options for school,” Menocal Harrigan wrote in response to a Chalkbeat questionnaire.
While Anderson has vowed not to vote to open any new schools until the district has enough money to equitably fund the schools it has, Menocal Harrigan has said she will support any new schools — charter or district-run — that are backed by parents and community members.
“I believe a halt is a halt to progress,” Menocal Harrigan said at a forum. “I believe a halt to public charter schools is a halt to parent choice and access and opportunity.”
Manuntseva also supports school choice and charter schools. “Every single parent should have the opportunity and have the ability to send their child to a school that best fits their needs,” she said at a forum. “We cannot make every child fit into the same exact box.”
Anderson has said he would not vote to close any schools either, because doing so creates instability for students, families, and teachers. Menocal Harrigan has also said “abrupt” school closure is traumatic, but she has stopped short of pledging never to close a school.
“When schools have inconsistent leadership, are under-resourced or underenrolled, we have to collectively come up with ways to better support the students at that school,” she wrote.
Anderson was endorsed by the Denver teachers union, while Menocal Harrigan has the support of groups that favor many of the district’s reforms, including the advocacy organizations Stand for Children and Students for Education Reform.
On the campaign trail, each candidate has emphasized different solutions to the problems that plague Denver Public Schools. The candidates don’t necessarily disagree with each other’s solutions, but what they choose to emphasize can be telling.
When asked how the district can close test score gaps between white students and students of color, Menocal Harrigan often talks about funneling more money to classrooms.
“We have made progress, but we have not done it in an accelerated enough way,” she said at a forum. “The way we do that is by increasing resources to schools, giving schools more autonomy, and finding local improvement strategies.”
Anderson, meanwhile, emphasizes the need to hire more teachers of color.
“We need our students to see themselves in the classroom,” he said at a forum. One way to boost the low number of teachers of color, he said, is to “home-grow our educators” by identifying students interested in teaching careers and paying for their college.
Manuntseva has offered fewer specifics.
“I want to make sure that we create a community where everyone is heard,” she said at a forum, specifically mentioning immigrant families and those whose first language is not English.
Some of the solutions candidates have offered are expensive. Denver Public Schools has a more than $1 billion budget, but the district’s ability to raise new money is limited.
Menocal Harrigan and others have pointed to the district’s central administration as a likely place to slash spending, though the superintendent recently cut about 150 positions to free up funding for increased teacher salaries negotiated during a strike earlier this year.
She has also said the district could save money in the long run by awarding contracts for construction projects to union shops that do high-quality work rather than to the lowest bidder.
Anderson has said the district should stop spending money on staffing middle and high schools with Denver police officers, and use the money to hire more school counselors, though the funding wouldn’t be near enough to meet the ideal student-to-counselor ratio.
Aside from their stances on hot-button issues, Anderson and Menocal Harrigan have offered novel ideas as part of their campaign platforms.
For example, Anderson has pledged to push for a gender-neutral bathroom in every school, and to stock school bathrooms with free menstrual hygiene products to end “period poverty” so no student has to miss school because they can’t afford tampons or pads.
To help recruit more teachers to Denver, a gentrifying city with rising housing prices, Menocal Harrigan has an idea to offer reduced rent to teachers who agree to work in the district for three to five years. The teachers would live in community housing on district property.
For more about the three candidates, read our profiles here:
Want to hear more from the candidates?
Check out their answers to Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire here.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.