Editorial: Denver’s schools need stable leaders. Here’s how to consider board candidates in 2023.

Denver’s public schools are in dire need of stable leadership.

For years now, turmoil has dominated the district’s Board of Education. Board meetings are fueled by interpersonal drama rather than the important business of the district, at a time of deep unrest for students, teachers, principals, and parents.

We urge Denver voters to consider a new path for the school board in the Nov. 7 election as they consider candidates to fill three school board seats – one at-large and two for the districts in southeast and central Denver.

Mercifully, the at-large incumbent board director, Auon’tai Anderson, is not seeking re-election leaving that seat open for change.

John Youngquist and Kwame Spearman are running neck and neck for the seat, and either will be a great improvement over current conditions if they stick to their pledges to be apolitical and make board business (staid and true) the only priority. A third candidate, Brittni Johnson, does not have a competitive public campaign effort. The fourth candidate Paul Ballenger has dropped out of the race, but his name is still on the ballot.

Can Youngquist and Spearman leave drama off the board and focus exclusively on the fundamentals a district must get right to best educate students and keep them safe?

The proof is in their records.

Youngquist has decades of experience as a principal and as a senior executive running urban school districts in both Aurora and Denver. He is best known for his two five-year stints as principal of East High School. In 2017, he returned to help stabilize East after a principal retired early amid a scandal that rocked the school. By all accounts he was successful.

He has two daughters attending East, which became a flash-point for district safety concerns following multiple shootings: student Luis Garcia was killed in his car in front of the school and two principals later survived being shot by a student who fled only to kill himself as police searched for him.

All this points to Youngquist having the experience to lead this district out of chaos and into safety and stability. However, Youngquist has made his disdain for the current board no secret — nor have we — but we do worry Youngquist will struggle to work hand-in-hand with board members whom he has spent months criticizing on the campaign trail. Youngquist will have to find a way to rebuild burnt bridges with board members whom he already shares a philosophical divide with on key policy issues. Youngquist will push for the board to return to transparency and accountability, including providing parents with data about their school’s performance on standardized tests.

Youngquist says he supported the reforms implemented by former superintendents Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet, including giving parents options for school attendance. These reforms pushed the district to have some of the top-performing schools in the state, but also one of the most segregated districts both racially and economically. Youngquist has a record of working with high-poverty schools to improve equity, a fact lauded by the Denver teacher’s union even as it endorsed his opponent.

The union, which has opposed many of the reforms introduced under Boasberg and Bennet, supports Spearman for what they praised as a deep understanding “that when educators have the vital support that they need, students are able to reach their full potential.” Post-pandemic, student mental health has deteriorated and behavioral problems have surged, meaning teachers and principals need more support than ever.

Spearman has limited his criticism to the incumbent board member he is trying to replace, saying most of the board’s problems have been created by that one divisive personality who was formally censured by the board for his behavior. Spearman pitches himself as a uniter on the board — someone who supports school and teacher accountability and school choice, but who has won the support of the union.

However, Spearman’s track record is at odds with that appeal. As the CEO of Tattered Cover bookstore, a struggling local chain that Spearman expanded while he was in charge, he frequently found himself at the center of controversies. Much of the negative press that followed Spearman at Tattered Cover were unforced errors that reflected poorly on the company, similar to the self-manufactured problems the school board has struggled to overcome. Spearman has said he learned a lot from his recent unsuccessful bid for mayor and is prepared to be a steady force on the board.

Whether it’s Spearman or Youngquist, we are excited for fresh voices on the board and know the improvement will be greatest if voters in southeast Denver’s District 1 decide to ditch the incumbent Scott Baldermann and if voters in central Denver’s District 5 move away from incumbent Charmaine Lindsay.

Because as it stands, the dynamics on the board threaten to undermine decades of support, trust, and success in Denver Public Schools.

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