03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bad Dreams Needn't Come True

If there’s one overriding lesson from last night’s
school-related elections along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s that voters in some
districts, for whatever reason, are not happy with the status quo, even,
paradoxically, when the status quo is about change.

In the two most closely watched school board contests,
Denver voters shifted power on the board so that the pace of reform will likely
slow, and the direction will almost certainly change. In Douglas County, two
incumbents were ousted and a slate of more doctrinaire, conservative
Republicans took power.

Meanwhile, voters in Greeley and Mapleton rejected tax
increases the two districts argued were essential. In this economy, such votes
aren’t altogether shocking. But in Mapleton, where no organized opposition
existed, the narrow defeats of a bond issue and mill levy override were still
stunning – and crushing for a district in the midst of a long-term, ambitious
overhaul effort.

The Denver vote may send shockwaves through “reformers” (an
overused term) across the nation, who see the results as a repudiation of New
York and Chicago-style reform. Closing chronically failing schools, opening new
ones and granting more schools freedom from district and union regulations
probably just became a lot more difficult.

It was fascinating to talk last night to people on the
losing side. There were prognostications of doom: “Denver is dead as a reform
city” and  “Colorado’s Race to the
Top bid just suffered a fatal blow,” were among the most commonly expressed

Overlying the gloom was anger, much of it directed at
prominent Denver citizens who largely stayed on the sidelines for fear of
ruffling the feathers of other powerful people. Several people I talked to last
night named names, promising to call to account those they say stood idly by
and allowed incumbent Jeanne Kaplan – who has tried to slow the pace of change
– to run unopposed and to nurture a slate of union-backed candidates, two of
whom prevailed.

I choose to remain uncharacteristically optimistic about the
future of Denver Public Schools. First of all, Mary Seawell won the at-large
seat. She will be one of the strongest school board members Denver has ever
known. OK, I’m biased – she’s an old friend – but Mary is tough-minded and
smart, and will be effective.

Yes, Vernon Jones and Ismael Garcia lost, after running on
pledges to support Superintendent Tom Boasberg and even to push for an
acceleration of his reforms.

But after having a Where the Wild Things Are evening of
gnashing terrible teeth and roaring terrible roars, Denver’s vanquished
“reformers” need to face the new day and give newly elected Nate Easley and
Andrea Merida the full benefit of their doubt.  (I promise I am not saying this because Merida’s father, a
wonderful character with whom I have a good relationship, recently threatened,
half-jokingly – I think – to, um, emasculate me if I wasn’t nice to his

Yes, Kaplan will probably be the next board president. Yes,
Easley and Merida were backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
Yes, they have expressed some concern about the proliferation of charter
schools, about closing schools and about the pace of change in DPS.

But as one outgoing school board member told me last night,
“Everything looks really different once you get on the inside.”

Let’s hope that proves true. One scenario that has some
people worried goes like this. On November 30, in its last official action, the
current school board votes to make major changes to the district’s three
lowest-performing schools: Greenlee K-8, Philips Elementary and Lake Middle.
These changes are part of the “turnaround” strategy promoted by Education
Secretary Arne Duncan, and are an integral component of Race to the Top.

That same evening, the new board is sworn in, and as its
first official action, on a 4-3 vote, reverses the “turnaround” decisions made
just moments before.

If this scenario comes true, and it is distinctly possible,
then Colorado’s Race to the Top application really might be in trouble. If the
state’s one large urban district goes squirrelly on the kinds of changes Duncan
and President Obama support, kiss hundreds of millions of dollars goodbye.

If the new majority tries to prevent school closures and
starts rejecting charter applications willy-nilly, then I fear the worst. To
me, the worst would be having Boasberg lose board support and leave, to be
replaced by a recycled career superintendent. If that happens, DPS is in even
deeper trouble than it is now. I’m trusting that this won’t happen.

Last night, everyone focused on the adults; their opposing
camps, the big donors, vendettas, factions, what have you. Let’s hope that
today everyone can remember Denver’s children.