By Eric Heinz
Five candidates are vying for the seat that will be left vacant by current Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education Vice President Auon’tai M. Anderson. The election is Nov. 7.
Ulcca Hansen is a former classroom teacher who became a lawyer and led several nonprofit organizations. She said right now is the time DPS should be envisioning a 10- to 15-year plan that will most benefit students.
“I started school as an English language learner. I’m the first in my family to go to college and graduate school,” Hansen said. “This issue of equity and what it means to provide every student with a high-quality education in our public system is deeply personal to me.”
Hansen said there needs to be context taken into consideration as the district continues to pull a plan for bringing student resource officers (SROs) back to certain campuses, after Superintendent Alex Marrero made the decision to do so last spring.
“I would be really curious about what the district has (for security),” Hansen said. “I’ve been in tons of conversations with families, and my general stance is we shouldn’t ban SROs. I think that should be a decision that’s made at the school level.”
Hansen said by increasing opportunities for students that make schools look competitive to alternatives is a way the district could try to shore up its declining enrollment issues.
“I think we as a district need to have a vision for what an equitable, high-quality education is for every single student that is aligned with that broader reality,” Hansen said. “It’s where the world is going with artificial intelligence and technology. It’s what employers are saying they need from young people. I think we’ve got to think about how we broaden that definition.”
Paul Ballenger, a military veteran and security consultant, has worked in government at city, state and federal levels, and he has sat on a couple civilian boards. He said his experience as an executive in his company gives him the knowledge needed to navigate the district.
Ballenger said as a father raising his daughter the last 11 years on his own, he’d discussed plans for learning during the COVID era, but was disappointed by the execution of the plans.
He said when his daughter would describe classroom environments that were not conducive to education, he was further concerned. He also said he was “alarmed” by the move to remove SROs from schools.
“The discipline matrix in DPS is really a serious constraint on having effective discipline in our schools, and we’ve raised concerns … up the chain of command and nothing has really been responded to. We’ve not received any additional support,” Ballenger said.
After the shootings at East High School, Ballenger said he got involved with a parent group that wanted to figure out what the district should do regarding security.
“I would want to make sure that our superintendent is not only developing good operational policies, but implementing them properly,” he said. “I think it’s accountability, transparency and great communication. The board should be looking at the horizon.”
Kwame Spearman grew up attending DPS schools and eventually worked for former Sen. Mark Udall’s senate campaign. He then went to work for a consulting firm in New York.
Locally, Spearman is known for his purchase of the Tattered Cover book store, and he recently ran for Denver mayor but withdrew before the start of the municipal election.
“The district is at an inflection point right now. And what we need more than anything is a new voice, a new generation, but a generation that understands where we have been,” Spearman said. “I’m deeply concerned that we are on a path that is going to hurt student outcomes, hurt our teachers and overall hurt the district.”
Spearman said one of his main goals is to get all third-graders at reading proficiency, and he said when it comes to security measures, he would like to see a renewed agreement with DPD, but he said the district needs to be mindful of places where people feel less safe with armed officers.
Regarding declining enrollment, he said the district needs to try to get students in the area to choose DPS, adding that there are 400,000 students in the immediate area.
“The flight to Cherry Creek Schools, the flight to Littleton, that’s got to end and it’s got to be reversed,” Spearman said.
Sean Gallegos is making his first foray into politics. He said he would like to see security reformed throughout the district by instead of hiring police officers, giving the job to retired military veterans.
“I’m a big fan of police officers; I have no issues with police officers, but when it comes to security, they come at it from a law-enforcement perspective, which sometimes means getting arrested for some of dumb stuff.”
Gallegos said he’s not sure the school district can do much in terms of retaining families to stem declining enrollment, but he said if they offered more after- school programs and recreational opportunities at minimal to no costs, that could help keep some families within DPS.
Gallegos said his 10 years of hotel maintenance experience gives him the background in interacting with people and listening to their concerns, particularly as he’s spoken with visitors from around the world. That experience allowed him to see “everything as a business structure,” he said. “If you make (something) engaging, people will engage. We also have to be more transparent with the parents. In order to bring about effective reform or change, you have to be upfront with the parents.”
John Youngquist is a former principal of Denver East High School. He said he supports bringing back SROs to campus, but he wants a reasonable way to do that.
“We need a plan to secure the safety for our students and our staff members in our school buildings,” Youngquist said, “There isn’t the plan that was ever implemented and that has been of great frustration to me. So I believe it was the right thing to do to bring (SROs) back because we don’t have another way …that we’re securing safety in our schools for students and staff.”
Youngquist said when it comes to declining enrollment, he wants to see the school district flourish through transparency.
“We need to ensure that people see and understand that our schools are strong and you should be confident in bringing your students to our schools and that has to be authentic,” he said. “People … need to see and feel that it is a strong experience for their students.”
Youngquist said his experience as an administrator helps his candidacy.
“We have not had an assessment plan in place the last few years that allows us to know what the trends really are,” Youngquist said, “We have not been good at identifying assessments, which let us know how students are growing in classrooms.”