Denver Public Schools At-Large election: the three candidates, their priorities and where they stand

Four names will appear on the ballot, but only three remain in the running.
12 min. read
Denver Public Schools headquarters, March 23, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

On Nov. 7, all Denverites will vote on who will fill the at-large Denver Public Schools board seat held by Vice President Auon'tai Anderson.

Big issues are being debated: how to address safety, student mental health, board transparency and leadership, improving academic outcomes and supporting teachers, a decline in enrollment and more.

Out of the four people on the ballot, one, Paul Ballenger, has already dropped out. Brittni Johnson, who's been endorsed by a slew of progressives, has been outraised by more than $70 to $1.

Former mayoral candidate and ex-CEO of Tattered Cover Kwame Spearman and former East High School principal and lifelong educator John Youngquist are currently the two best-funded candidates in the race and, as of publication, are the only candidates who have sat with Denverite for an interview.

The teacher's union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, has endorsed Spearman, and the charter-school boosters at the nonprofit Denver Families Action have endorsed Youngquist.

As of Oct. 3, Spearman had received more than $71,474 in political contributions. His largest institutional donor was the Communication Workers of America Committee on Political Education. As of Oct. 3, Youngquist lagged slightly behind with $70,378 in political contributions. Both candidates have mostly individual support and not massive institutional backing -- at least, so far.

Johnson has raised $736 and Ballenger raised $13,847.93 before withdrawing.

In alphabetical order, here are the three people still running of the four on the ballot.

Brittni Johnson

Johnson has not responded to multiple requests for comments for several weeks. An automated email response from her indicates personal issues may have prevented her from doing an interview ahead of publication of this article. What we know about her comes from the available biography and issues page on her website. We were unable to ask for clarification about her priorities or how she would work to accomplish them.

A Denver Public Schools alum, Johnson is a single mom of three who worked as a licensed massage therapist before suffering a life-altering car accident that took her out of the workforce so she could heal. She has volunteered at her children's schools and is pursuing a doctorate in education.

Here's her slogan: "I'm running for School Board to fight for student-centric policies, safety, equity, teacher support, and community voices."

She lists seven main issues: Prioritizing students, community engagement, safety through equity, gun violence prevention, inclusivity and diversity, equitable school funding and teacher support.

Among her policy proposals are separating teacher pay from performance and instead determining raises based on "ongoing, meaningful assessments," working with state lawmakers to revise testing to ensure all students are treated equitably and finding "holistic" ways of measuring academic achievement.

She believes in community-driven board governance.

"She champions the Community School design, underpinned by its six pillars-culturally relevant curriculum, high-quality teaching, inclusive leadership, restorative behavior practices, strong community partnerships, and wraparound supports-as a comprehensive educational approach that nurtures the whole child," her website states.

Johnson wants to ensure school safety through mental health support and restorative justice rather than punishment and suspensions. She wants one mental health counselor per 250 students and hopes schools create peer counselor programs.

Working with both lawmakers and parent and student groups, she will push for policy and strategies to reduce gun violence. Specific policies are not listed on her website. .

Johnson wants to recruit diverse teachers, particularly DPS alums and partner with community groups to give students hands-on experience in aviation, business, arts and environmental studies to motivate students and prepare them for life.

Colorado offers inadequate school funding, she argues, and plans to work with state lawmakers to change that.

"Brittni supports greater budget transparency and a reassessment of the current per-pupil funding model, and aims to develop a system that will distribute funds based on student needs, thus striking a balance between school autonomy and centralized support," according to her website.

She pledges to support teachers and other staff unions and their quest for higher salaries and better job protections.

John Youngquist

Youngquist, who spent 35 years in education, is East High School's former principal, the parent of two East students, the former chief academic officer of Aurora Public Schools, the former area superintendent of 36 schools in northwest Denver, and most recently the president of a consulting firm for principals.

He's running a campaign based on his track record as a leader and experience as a lifelong educator. 

Denver Public Schools board candidate John Youngquist stands outside of his Cole office. Oct. 5, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Youngquist decided to run after he observed the most recent board and Superintendent Alex Marrero not respond to safety threats and concerns on campuses to his satisfaction. That became particularly acute last school year, as East High School faced multiple school shootings.

"I haven't been seeing a board that has been engaging in the role of ensuring that our students are safe, that our students are emotionally taken care of, that our students are learning well," he said. "I viewed this last spring as the time to engage in the opportunity to become a candidate for the board of education that I know needs leadership."

He divides his campaign into four big themes: physical safety, student mental health, board transparency and strong leadership, and teaching and learning.

Safety can be well addressed in six months, he said.

"I will direct the superintendent and their staff to bring together the Denver Police Department, the Denver Fire Department, Wellpower and Denver Health, to sit down at the table and say, 'What is our work together?'" he said. "Because here's the deal. When there's a crisis, everybody's there anyway. But they're confused as to what the rules are. And that's not something that we can afford as a community."

He remembers waiting for his kids outside East High School four times last year watching first responders and the school not knowing how to react.

"People aren't sure what their role is," he said. "And you can figure that out. You can solve for that."

Student behavior, as he sees it, should be addressed with both a culture of restorative conversations but also a better-designed behavioral matrix.

"It's a matrix that was not designed with the input of educators at the school site," he said. "It's a matrix that was implemented without communication or training. And it's a matrix that essentially says, 'You can't suspend or expel students.' That is the wrong approach. Now, we need to suspend or expel students less. But that's not how you get it done."

Schools should have more power to work with the district to suspend and expel students when administrators believe that's the right call.

Over six to nine months, Youngquist argues, the district can study the issue of mental health, design a program and then begin to implement a program serving preschoolers through seniors.

To address mental health, the school district needs to double the resources devoted to the issue.

He also wants schools to address non-violent issues with trained mental health professionals instead of solely with deans and police. He'd like DPS to invest in service centers that offer both inpatient and outpatient mental health services alongside education.

Trust is one of his biggest issues with the current district's leadership.

"We need to design and engage ways to look at our work that people begin to trust," he said.

That means offering greater transparency with how the district is spending its $1.3 billion budget and opening the books so that when the board is faced with questions like school closures, the public understands how money is being spent and what the actual needs are.

He also wants the district to create an online dashboard to track goals and progress on issues such as student attendance, safety, academics, and fiscal management.

After basic needs are met -- physical and mental health of students and trust in leadership -- the district can then focus on what should be its main focus: teaching and learning.

Youngquist looked at the most recent Denver Public Schools District report and was troubled.

"We're not looking at anything deeply to understand: Where are the gaps and what do we do well and what do we do poorly?" he said.

He wants to rebuild how the school system evaluates teachers and to do more to listen to educators about their needs regarding pay and benefits.

To address some of the big issues facing teachers and families like housing, cost of living and employment, the district needs to reach out to private and public partners outside the district.

"We need to heal some relationships and get back to working together as a community for our kids," he said.

Kwame Spearman

Spearman, an East High School alum, comes from a long line of educators.

"The conversations we had at our dinner table growing up were about how do we increase student outcomes, better support our teachers and have great schools in every neighborhood," Spearman said.

While Spearman has strong family ties to the district and is a DPS grad, Spearman has not had a career in education himself. After graduating from Denver Public Schools, Spearman completed his undergrad at Columbia University and went to law school at Yale and business school at Harvard.

Denver Public Schools board candidate Kwame Spearman stands in front of East High School. Oct. 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

He worked for the massive consultant Bain and Company and other corporations before returning to Denver in late 2020 to save Tattered Cover during the pandemic. He left his post, maintaining his share of ownership, to run for Denver mayor, in a campaign defined by his law-and-order politics. After he made the ballot and before the election, he withdrew from the race, announcing several weeks later his intention to run for the at-large seat.

Spearman's big priority is to bring "decorum back to the board," he said. "It is ridiculous the amount of time and energy the board is spending on infighting and social media posts and blunders."

The board should instead focus on student outcomes and supporting teachers.

"Every conversation needs to start, focus and end on that," Spearman said. "That's step one. Step two is we've got to better listen to the community. We need to know how the community is responding to our actions. And we need to listen and then help operationalize and implement what the community is telling us."

He wants Denver Public School teachers to have the highest pay in the region, starting at $60,000. He proposes funding that salary hike through a citywide ballot measure. He also plans to boost teachers' health care and parental benefits, including longer paid parental leave with moms getting three months and dads getting two.

"We need a coherent vision," he continued. "That vision needs to incorporate what I believe is the new reality at Denver Public Schools. Its role is to educate and prepare its students for the world, not for a four-year private college or university, and the best way to support our students is to support our educators."

Spearman wants the district to simplify its discipline matrix -- the tool it uses to determine how student misbehavior should be addressed.

"While we are committed to all of our students receiving an education from Denver Public Schools, there must be different environments for students depending on circumstances," Spearman said. Those would include "alternative learning environments for students who are either dealing with crises outside of the classroom or who have demonstrated that they are not in a mindset to have adequate behavior to be inside of a classroom."

Spearman wants to address Denver school teachers' struggles to live in Denver by collaborating with the public and private sectors to create teacher housing with a down payment support program and 2,000 units of subsidized housing built on city-owned land.

He plans to keep school resource officers, or armed police, in schools, while reforming how they interact with students to prevent needless ticketing and arrests that largely impact Black and Latino students. He also plans to remove guns from schools through "community monitoring."

He plans to increase the representation of teachers of color and address the achievement gap between white and Black and Latino students by ensuring every neighborhood has schools with various educational philosophies and that families have a variety of choices within their own communities.

Spearman thinks Denver Public Schools should have smaller class sizes, better-funded special education programs, and more mental health professionals, so teachers can focus on teaching. Teachers, he explains, should receive additional mental health training so they can better address students' needs.

He'd like the district to partner with Denver Health to ensure wider spread resources for students facing short-term mental health crises while also strengthening support for students needing more regular resources.

"You are not going to find someone who's more supportive and more optimistic about Denver Public Schools than I am," Spearman said.

But as a candidate who is not part of the system, Spearman says he sees, with clearer eyes, what's going wrong.

"To many people, we are at a crisis of confidence right now," he said. "And also, I believe, if we want to get out of this, we can't do the same things that we've been doing for the past 35 years. We've got to think innovatively."

Head to our full voter guide for more information about the upcoming school board race, profiles of the candidates and other local and state measures that will appear on Denver's November ballot.  

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