Twelve candidates run for Denver school board

When voters go to the polls on Nov. 2 they will decide who will help oversee Colorado’s largest school district.

Twelve candidates are running for four open seats on the Denver school board.

The election comes as a new superintendent has taken the helm of Denver Public Schools during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and following the board’s recent censure of member Tay Anderson.

Voter Guide

Looking for information on those Denver and statewide ballot issues? Check out the Voter Guide.

Here are the candidates:

At-large

Marla Benavides — home-schools her son and is running for an at-large seat, saying that she is concerned about literacy rates. On her website, Benavides blamed the district’s focus on equity for a failure to improve teaching and student performance. “I see literacy as the engine behind our 250 years of American greatness,” she said. “And I see my role as the last hope for education reform.”  You can read her full profile here.

Scott Esserman — is running for an at-large seat. He is a former teacher and was on the founding staff of Northfield High School in northeast Denver. Esserman said he would focus on improving student outcomes and disparities. He believes in “community schools,” which he said have culturally relevant curriculum and discipline is aimed at repairing harm. “That community schools model ensures that what we’re doing is listening,” he said. You can read his full profile here.

Vernon Jones Jr. — is a Christian pastor who is running for an at-large seat. He was the executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, which is comprised of six semi-autonomous schools. He resigned from the position on Oct. 8. Jones, who wants to make sure there is Black representation on the board, said he wants the district to focus on equity, wellness, achievement and responsibility. “We have to do right by Black students across the city,” he said. “We have to do right by brown students across the city. And you need somebody who can champion that message.” You can read his full profile here.

Jane Shirley — is a former teacher, principal and district administrator at Aurora Public Schools. She is running for an at-large seat and lives in east Denver. Shirley said she is running because she thinks her experience could help the board, including in managing the superintendent.  She said she would focus on the well-being of students and teachers. “We’re killing our kids’ souls with this over-emphasis on competition and test scores and getting into good colleges,” Shirley said. You can read her full profile here.

Nicky Yollick — is a progressive political activist running for an at-large seat. He did not attend Denver Public Schools, nor is he a parent. He said he would focus on getting more money to schools by cutting the district administration and would give teachers and the community more influence over decisions. “Denver communities know I’m solidly in the progressive camp, and I don’t plan on budging one bit as a candidate or as a director on the board,” Yollick said. You can read his full profile here.

District 2

Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán — is a real estate agent who wants to represent District 2 so she can focus on classroom funding, reducing class sizes, and increasing access to arts, music and sports. Gaytán is co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum — which aims to increase the political and social strength of the Latino Community —  and said she wants to be “a voice for one of the communities that has been pushed out of our city — a community specifically of Latino, Mexicano, Chicano [families].” You can read her full profile here.

Karolina Villagrana — is a former local teacher running to represent southwest Denver who wants to improve literacy instruction. She has experience at charter schools and the district’s Knapp Elementary School. But Villagrana said she isn’t focused on the type of schools children attend, adding “When I was having conversations with loved ones, it was more so that they wanted to find a school that was best for their kids, where their kids are learning and being successful.” You can read her full profile here.

District 3

Mike DeGuire — is running to represent central-east Denver. The retired Denver principal said he wants to give back and have the district provide more mental health and emotional support for students. DeGuire said he would also tackle what he called an “overemphasis on testing and a narrow emphasis on academics to the detriment of the other experiences that kids need — the arts, technical trades, extracurriculars, science, social studies, technology, civics.” You can read his full profile here.

Carrie Olson — serves as the Denver school board president and is running for reelection. She was elected in 2017 and has served as president since 2019. She has led the district’s search for a new superintendent and its response to the pandemic. Olson said her priorities would include strengthening traditional district-run schools and recruiting and retaining teachers of color — the latter of which has been a goal of the board without much progress. “I don’t think that there’s people actively working against the board’s vision,” Olson said. “I just think that we’re a large school system, and there is a lot of institutional racism. … So how can we better bridge that gap?” You can read her full profile here.

District 4

Gene Fashaw — is a math teacher at High Point Academy charter school in Aurora who is running to represent District 4 on the board. He said he would have the district better recruit and retain teachers of color and prioritize community voices in decision-making. Fashaw said he wants the district to support students, who he said are “often forgotten and not served appropriately.” You can read his full profile here.

Michelle Quattlebaum — works as a family and community liaison at George Washington High School. She said she is running for a seat on the board to represent District 4 because she knows how to bring about change in the school system. Quattlebaum said she’d focus on recruiting and retaining employees of color, which would also ensure students’ physical, emotional, mental, cultural, social and intellectual safety. “When we talk about safety, the community we’re really talking about are Black and brown students,” she said. “When we’re hiring those teachers, when we’re hiring those counselors, when we’re hiring the support staff, we’re feeding into what that safety network looks like.” You can read her full profile here.

José Silva — is running to represent District 4 and currently serves as executive director of the Colorado Association for Infant Mental Health. He previously ran for the board in 2003 and 2007 and said he is doing so once again because it needs members who are fiscally minded and understand good governance. “Hashtag nerd to the board,” Silva said. “Most people, when you think about education, you just have a good feeling — that the education system is doing its job. I wouldn’t be running if that was the case. … It’s time to get into the work.” Silva’s stepdaughter has accused him of using physical force against her when she was a minor. You can read his full profile here.

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