By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat
Denver voters face a choice this November that could change longstanding education policies and practices in the state’s largest district.
Three Denver parents are running to represent southeast Denver’s District 1 on the school board. The District 1 seat is one of three board seats up for grabs Nov. 5.
Scott Baldermann is the father of two students who attend Lincoln Elementary in the Washington Park neighborhood. After growing up in Aurora, Baldermann, 43, started and then sold a technology company that developed a web-based tool for the construction industry. He is a stay-at-home parent who recently served as PTA president at his children’s school.
Diana Romero Campbell has two children: one who graduated from Denver Public Schools and one who attends Thomas Jefferson High School, her alma mater. She is the only candidate in this race who is a Denver graduate. Romero Campbell, 50, is head of Scholars Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that provides free academic tutoring and enrichment to Denver students.
Radhika Nath is the mother of two children who have special needs. Her children attend Samuels Elementary in the Hampden South neighborhood. An immigrant from India who came to the United States to pursue higher education, Nath, 49, holds a doctorate in public policy. She works in health care policy as a grant-funded contractor for the state.
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 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.
On policy, Baldermann and Nath are closely aligned. Romero Campbell’s views differ on several important topics, including school choice and charter schools. About a quarter of Denver’s more than 200 schools are charters. The schools are publicly funded and run by independent boards.
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.
Nath has come out the strongest against charters and choice. She has criticized charter schools for siphoning students and funding from traditional schools, and for “undermining collective bargaining” because charter school teachers are not members of the teachers union.
Nath has also lambasted school choice as an “abdication of the district’s duty” to provide quality schools in every neighborhood. Instead, she said, the district puts the onus on families to find a quality school and hope that their child is admitted through the choice lottery.
“Choice is an illusion because only the parents who are hustling the hardest or winning a lottery are able to access the school of their choice,” Nath said at a candidate forum.
Baldermann is also skeptical of charters and choice. He has said he understands why families would choose a charter school with a specialized curriculum or program, but he believes such programs can be offered just as easily in district-run “innovation schools” that don’t require teachers to waive their collective bargaining rights. Innovation schools have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools, though not usually as much as charters.
“I prefer the district maintain control of its schools, so we benefit from economies of scale — such as efficient use of administrative staff — that will further redirect money into classrooms,” Baldermann wrote in response to a Chalkbeat questionnaire.
Romero Campbell strongly supports school choice, including families’ ability to choose a charter school they think is right for their child. She has said she agrees the district should provide a quality school in every neighborhood — but she said that until that is the case, parents should be allowed to choose a school outside their neighborhood if they think it’s a better fit.
Some of the district’s top-performing schools are charters, and proponents say their autonomy allows them to offer a diversity of learning experiences.
“I believe in the parents and their ability to look at what those choices are and to navigate them,” Romero Campbell said at a forum. “We can always do better, but that is a system that I believe we need in our district,” she said, referring to the choice system.
The candidates also differ in how they talk about struggling schools and whether the district should close or replace them. Nath and Baldermann often question the district’s reliance on student test scores to measure whether a school is performing well or not.
“As a mother of children who have special education requirements, I know my children will not test well,” Nath said at a forum. Schools shouldn’t be closed based on test scores, she said: “Neighborhood schools need to be strongly resourced and be able to stay open.”
Baldermann agrees. He has said schools should not be judged by test scores but by how well they’re providing for students’ social and emotional needs.
“If we are not supporting the ‘whole child,’ that is what I would consider a failing school,” he said.
Romero Campbell has taken a different tack when talking about school closure, emphasizing that no family wants to send their child to a poorly performing school. She has said school closure should be a last resort, but that no option should be taken off the table, especially if families and community members want a new school to replace a struggling one.
“Should the community want a ‘restart’ or the addition of a new school, I believe the board should support their effort,” she wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire.
Baldermann was endorsed by the Denver teachers union, which generally opposes the district’s reforms. Nath was endorsed by other groups skeptical of reform, including the Working Families Party and local parent and student group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.
All three candidates agree on many issues, including that Denver Public Schools should pay teachers a livable wage, hire more teachers of color, and provide more mental health services for students. Any of the candidates will face financial challenges putting in place policies that require new spending, such as hiring more social workers or reducing class sizes. The district has a budget of more than $1 billion, but its ability to raise new money is limited.
Each District 1 candidate has emphasized different issues on the campaign trail, reflecting their distinct priorities. Romero Campbell has talked about the importance of early childhood education, a field in which she has worked. She has the most education-related experience of the candidates and has said recruiting new teachers locally would be a top priority.
Baldermann has said that if elected, he’d want to dig into the district’s finances. The easiest way to improve Denver’s schools, he said, is to reallocate funding from district administration to classrooms. He believes the district should increase the extra funding schools get for students from low-income families, students learning English, and students with special needs.
Denver Public Schools recently cut $17 million and 150 positions from central office administration earlier this year to pay for teacher raises after a strike earlier this year.
Nath has emphasized the importance of smaller class sizes, suggesting a cap of no more than 15 students per class in elementary school. The current cap is 35 students. She has also called herself “the only grassroots” District 1 candidate, taking aim at the support Romero Campbell has gotten from outside groups and Baldermann’s unprecedented self-funding.
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.