Teacher, school finance lawyer face off to represent east Denver on school board

A bilingual English language development teacher is vying to unseat an incumbent Denver school board member, who is a school finance lawyer, in District 3.

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

A bilingual English language development teacher is vying to unseat an incumbent Denver school board member, who is a school finance lawyer, to represent the central-east part of the city, where not a single school this year earned Denver Public Schools’ lowest rating.

Carrie A. Olson teaches second language learners in a higher-poverty neighborhood in west Denver. Olson, 54, emphasizes on the campaign trail how her 33 years teaching in various city schools gives her a boots-on-the-ground perspective missing on the board.

“It’s time to put an educator on the board of education,” she said at a recent debate.

District 3 incumbent Mike Johnson, meanwhile, is touting his experience as a father of three DPS graduates, his school finance expertise and his track record as a board member, especially his efforts to visit each school in his region multiple times and answer parents’ questions.

“My big priorities, I accomplished them,” Johnson, 66, said in an interview.

Olson has the backing of the teachers union, while Johnson is being supported by civic leaders and groups in favor of the school district’s key policies, including school choice and autonomy. It’s a familiar narrative playing out in other Denver school board races this year, as well.

Four seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs. All seven seats are currently held by members who agree with the district’s direction. On Nov. 7, voters have the option to stay the course or change the dynamic by electing candidates who disagree.

District policy prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving on the board. If elected, Olson said she would ask her fellow board members to reconsider that policy.

Olson said she was motivated to run because she thinks certain board policies, such as replacing low-performing schools, have had unintended, negative consequences. As a teacher, she said, she’s experienced how closing a school can traumatize a neighborhood.

Olson was teaching at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver in 2014 when the district announced the low-performing school would be phased out and replaced.

The decision caused widespread instability, she said, and ended programs that had become “bedrocks of the community,” including the student trips to Washington, D.C. and Europe she had helped establish, the benefits of which she’d researched for her PhD dissertation.

“It’s so shattering that it takes a long time to come back from,” Olson said. “I can’t imagine a situation right now where I’d say school closure is a good idea.”

Olson ended up at West Leadership Academy, a district-run school with innovation status, which gives it more autonomy than a traditional school but less than a charter school. Olson said that while she’s not opposed to charter schools, which in Denver are publicly funded but run by nonprofit boards, the district should pause on approving more until it can ensure they’re serving all students, including those with special needs.

She also wants to ensure DPS is doing right by its English language learners. Olson keeps on her desk a dog-eared copy of the consent decree, a federal court order that dictates how the district must serve them. When President Trump announced he was ending a program that protects young undocumented immigrants, she accompanied her students on a walkout and advocated for the Spanish-speaking teenagers who wanted a turn with the bullhorn.

Olson, who has a daughter who graduated from DPS, also has raised concerns that “high-stakes standardized testing is out of control” and that the district’s finances are so opaque, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how DPS is spending its billion-dollar budget.

For his part, Johnson said he’s worked hard over the last four years to shine light on that. As board treasurer and chairman of the finance committee, he said he pushed to publish every school’s budget on the district website. Anyone can now see how much funding a school receives per student or how much it spends on administrators and supplies. If re-elected, Johnson said he’d work to make the budgets even more transparent and user-friendly.

He said he’s also been “a bulldog” for reducing the size of the district’s central office to send more money directly to schools. He supported a move last year to eliminate 157 central office jobs while at the same time increasing funding to hire more teacher coaches.

Johnson said he agrees with a common criticism that the district “has historically done a bad job at community outreach.” He’s tried to improve relations, he said, by attending PTA and neighborhood association meetings and hosting parent coffees. He collects community members’ questions and answers them in writing in a running document accessible on the district’s website; as of this writing, the document is more than 130 pages long.

One of his goals if re-elected, he said, would be to build upon that by hiring district staffers to assist volunteer board members in keeping track of community meetings in their neighborhoods and preparing for the public written explanations of district policies and proposals.

“The tension and arguments we’ve had internally about this is that it’s money that could otherwise have been used in the classroom,” Johnson said. But, he added, “I think it’s worth it.”

Johnson supports the district’s strategy to cultivate a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, innovation and charter schools, and he boasts that District 3 is home to more different types of school models and programs than most anyplace else in Colorado.

He said he, too, is frustrated by the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests but he believes in having “some standard way to measure how schools are doing in educating kids.” He also supports closing or restarting persistently low-performing schools.

“You have to start over if it’s not working,” Johnson said. “You have to do that for kids.”

As of Oct. 11, when the first campaign filing period ended, Johnson had raised more than four times as much money as Olson: $81,855 compared to $18,105.

His big donors included philanthropists who regularly give large sums to pro-reform school board candidates, while her largest investment came from the Denver teachers union.

Johnson has also benefitted from the support of two independent expenditure committees. As of Oct. 11, Olson had not, though committees had helped other union-backed candidates.