war of words

Denver Democratic Party chairman claims election mailer implies party endorsement in school board race

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a recent press conference at Holm Elementary.

The chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver on Tuesday called out as false a political mailer he said implied the party had endorsed a candidate in the Denver school board election.

The registered agent for the group that produced the piece, however, responded that was not the intent of a mailer that highlighted prominent Denver Democrats’ endorsements of board vice president Barbara O’Brien, a former Democratic lieutenant governor.

The disagreement is the latest escalation in what has become a tension-filled final stretch in the school board race, which features contests for four of the board’s seven seats. Ballots were mailed to voters more than two weeks ago, and voting ends Tuesday on Election Day.

At issue is a mailer produced by Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee that has spent more than $345,000 to try to preserve the 7-0 majority that backs the current direction of Denver Public Schools. The committee is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that in Colorado has advocated for increased funding for charter schools and for a DPS policy to close persistently low-performing schools of all types.

O’Brien sits on the national advisory board of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER.

Here is the front and back of the mailer:


Mike Cerbo, chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver, sent out a news release Tuesday with the following statement:

Dear Denver Democrats,
It has come to my attention that a mail piece is being circulated claiming that a candidate for the Denver School Board, Barbara O’Brien, is the choice of Denver Democrats. The implication that the Democratic Party has endorsed in this race is untrue. The Democratic Party of Denver does not endorse in local school board races and has made no endorsement in this one.

Cerbo also sent an email, obtained by Chalkbeat, to party members saying the party was calling on Raising Colorado “to retract any reference or implication that the Denver Democrats have made a choice in the Denver School Board race.” He provided the phone number and email of Jen Walmer, Raising Colorado’s registered agent and the Colorado state director of DFER.

In an interview Wednesday, Cerbo said his statement came in response to calls from party members about the mailer’s message.

“The implication was the Denver Democratic Party made a choice,” said Cerbo, a former state lawmaker and past president of the state’s AFL-CIO labor union. “There were a few different ways to phrase it if they were talking about a specific group of Denver Democrats.”

Walmer told Chalkbeat she responded to the concerns immediately when they were first aired on Facebook, explaining that as former Arapahoe County Democratic Party chair she understands party rules and bylaws about endorsements and never intended to imply one. She also apologized to Cerbo “for any problems this has caused for you in your role.”

After Cerbo shared her contact information with party members, Walmer said she received 45 phone calls and 16 or 17 emails, and also was the target of attacks via comments on Facebook.

“As a former county chair, I know the rules of parties,” said Walmer, who is also a former DPS chief of staff. “I never insinuated that they endorsed. I know they cannot. I am surprised I got such hateful and threatening comments based on a piece that is merely highlighting that six incredible Democratic leaders have endorsed Barbara O’Brien, but the party has been absolutely silent on attacks likening (candidates running for Denver school board) to Donald Trump.”

Asked about those attempts to tie board candidates to Trump and the party’s stance on them, Cerbo said he has not looked closely into it.

“Just to be clear,” he added, “I am not condoning mailers with inaccurate information if that’s the case. I wish we could have thoughtful debate on every issue of the campaign.”

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid up to $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson as much as $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works, a district spokesman said.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the contract says $60,000 is the maximum amount Antwan Wilson will be paid. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works.