By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat
In a part of Denver that has experienced rapid changes, voters face a choice that could shift long-standing education policies and practices in the state’s largest district and shape how schools respond to changing demographics.
Two parents and one former teacher are running to represent northwest Denver’s District 5 on the school board. The District 5 seat is one of three board seats up for grabs Nov. 5.
Julie Bañuelos taught in Denver for 16 years before leaving the classroom in 2016. An active teachers union member, she started her teaching career at the elementary school she attended as a child, and later taught in schools with dual-language, Montessori, and expeditionary learning programs. Bañuelos, 47, ran unsuccessfully for Denver school board in 2017.
Tony Curcio is also a second-time candidate, having run unsuccessfully in 2007. Curcio has three children: one who graduated from a Denver charter school, one who attends North High School in northwest Denver, and one who attends Morey Middle School in central Denver. A longtime district volunteer, Curcio, 53, works as an engineer for a construction firm.
Brad Laurvick is a Methodist pastor at a progressive church in northwest Denver. His oldest child goes to Centennial, an elementary school in the northwest Berkeley neighborhood. Laurvick, 37, was active during the Denver teacher strike earlier this year, giving an impassioned speech on the steps of the state Capitol in support of the union.
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.
All three District 5 candidates agree that Denver Public Schools needs to make changes by hiring more teachers of color, for example, and ensuring the curriculum is culturally relevant for the black and Latino students who make up the majority of Denver students.
But on hot-button issues such as school choice and charter schools, Laurvick and Bañuelos largely disagree with Curcio. About a quarter of Denver’s more than 200 schools are charter schools, which are publicly funded and run by independent boards.
Some of the district’s top-performing schools are charters, and proponents say their autonomy allows them to offer a diversity of learning experiences. The teachers union 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.
Curcio is a strong supporter of school choice and charter schools. He has dismissed the controversy over them as “adult politics.” He said that while the choice system has flaws, it’s better than a system that requires students to attend schools that might be under-resourced or racially segregated because the neighborhoods that students live in are segregated.
“We have to commit to make sure every school in every single neighborhood is a great school — but until that time happens, we have to exercise choice,” Curcio said at a candidate forum.
Bañuelos most staunchly opposes school choice. Because the district doesn’t always offer transportation to students who choose to attend a school outside their neighborhood, she said choice only benefits students whose families have the means to drive them across town.
Bañuelos has also blasted charter school networks, which are nonprofit organizations that run several charter schools each across the city, by saying they “parallel franchises in the corporate world.” If elected, she has vowed not to open any new charter schools.
“For so long, we as a community of black, indigenous, people of color, have been shoved [school] models down our throat, marketed these beautiful pages to attract us to these schools that make up the choice model,” Bañuelos said at a forum.
Laurvick has made the same vow, but he is more measured in his opposition to charters.
“At this moment in the DPS journey, we should focus on reinvesting in the schools we already have,” he wrote in response to a Chalkbeat questionnaire.
Laurvick said he supports school choice in certain circumstances, such as when families use it to choose a school that offers a specific curriculum like Montessori. But he said he doesn’t believe families should have to leave their neighborhood to attend a good school.
“When the choice system allows a family to choose variety, that’s fantastic,” he said at a forum. “When the choice system is used as a desperate search for quality — the school near me isn’t going to care for my child; where do I have to go? — we have failed.”
Enrollment in Denver Public Schools is expected to decline over the next several years because of lower birth rates and rising housing costs that are pushing families out of the city. Northwest Denver, historically home to many working-class Latino families, was one of the first areas to experience a spike in housing costs, and many families have already moved.
As enrollment declines, district officials are expecting the number of small schools — those with fewer than 215 students — to increase. That’s a problem because Denver schools are funded per-pupil, and too few students means not enough money to pay teachers and other staff.
Current board members have signaled that tough conversations about whether to close or consolidate small schools could be coming soon, including in northwest Denver.
The District 5 candidates sound a similar note when asked how to deal with small schools. At a recent forum, all three talked about the need to attract students back to schools with declining enrollment by offering programs that families want. That solution, however, doesn’t take into account the possibility that there won’t be enough students to go around.
Closing schools is an emotional proposition that almost always encounters fierce pushback. The District 5 candidates have approached the fraught issue differently.
Bañuelos is vehemently opposed. Closing schools, she wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire, does “nothing more than demoralize students, families, and teachers while creating a false narrative around the school as being a ‘failure.'”
Laurvick has said schools need more resources, not a restart. “Closing schools does not solve the problem of communities not being properly served,” he wrote.
Curcio has also said struggling schools need more resources, and that the community should be involved in any decision the district makes about a school’s future. But he’s also said students don’t have five or 10 years to wait for the district to get it right.
“If elected, I commit to bringing with me a sense of urgency in providing all students access to a quality education,” Curcio wrote in response to the questionnaire.
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.
Bañuelos and Laurvick have said the district could save money by reducing the number of contracts it holds with standardized testing companies. Lauvick has also talked about cutting the district’s middle management, and Bañuelos has called on Denver Public Schools to stop spending money to staff middle and high schools with Denver police officers.
Curcio has said he’s not willing to commit to eliminating police officers from schools. Rather, he’s said he’d look to “cut on the bureaucracy, [which] results in driving our resources to the classrooms, where our teachers and principals can make better decisions.”
Denver Public Schools already cut $17 million and 150 positions from central office administration earlier this year to pay for teacher raises after the strike.
Curcio has the support of groups that favor many of the reforms, including the advocacy organizations Stand for Children and Students for Education Reform. Lisa Flores, who currently holds the District 5 seat, has also endorsed Curcio. Laurvick, meanwhile, was endorsed by the Denver teachers union, which generally opposes the district’s reforms.
On the campaign trail, the District 5 candidates often draw distinctions in their personal experience to explain why voters should choose them over their opponents.
Bañuelos touts her experience as a Denver teacher, and before that, as a student growing up in a low-income family, an experience that mirrors the experiences of many Denver students, about two-thirds of whom come from low-income families.
Curcio often references his long track record of volunteering in his children’s schools and serving on district committees, including the committee that oversees how the district is spending a $572 bond issue that Denver voters approved in 2016.
Laurvick, meanwhile, talks about the social justice work he’s done as a Methodist pastor and the prominent role he played during the teacher strike. He often says that he decided to run for school board after community members and elected officials encouraged him to do so.
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.