Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.
The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.
The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.
The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.
“Now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”
Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).
He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.
When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.
“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.
Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.
Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.
“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”
His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.
“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.
Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.
Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”
Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)
Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.
After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.
Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.
“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”
Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.
Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.
Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.
As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”
“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”
Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.
Melanie Asmar is a reporter for Chalkbeat