Should the mayor of Denver take over the Denver Public Schools board?

Mayoral runoff candidates Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston agreed it was a bad idea at a forum Tuesday at Manual High School hosted by Chalkbeat.

Brough cited jobs the mayor already has such as managing the city’s multibillion-dollar budget and the third busiest airport in the world, and said she didn’t want to add work to the office.

Johnston deferred judgment of the school board to parents, and said they will make their voices heard during elections.

But the heart of the discussion revolved around how the mayor – who has no direct control over DPS – can help improve the state’s largest school district.

The two must work together, Brough said. She wants to pursue a robust collaboration with DPS and offer paid internships and apprenticeships to students, giving them valuable experience.

She called for the return of coordinating committees so goals can be aligned.

Johnston said time after school is just as important as school time for students, and after school programming, be it sports, tutoring or the arts, gives them a chance to find and pursue their passions.

“I want to expand programming to make sure young people, particularly those on free reduced lunch, have access to those opportunities after school and in the summer time,” he said. “The other key area of partnership the city has, I think, let us down on is on mental health. We've not provided enough resources to make sure students have an adequate supply of mental health counselors.”

Other questions concerned the closing of schools. In early March, the board voted to close three schools. Johnston connected school closures to the broader issues in Denver. Though appearing unrelated, the homelessness and public safety concerns citywide have created a feedback loop.

“Businesses are closing and there are many who are not coming back to downtown because they worry about their safety,” he said. “When that happens, we see a massively collapsing property tax, a massively collapsing income tax and we have less revenue for things like the Denver Public Schools.”

This results in budget problems at DPS, since its budget is partly funded by a mill levy, directly tied to certain taxes. There’s a knock-on effect as well: People leave Denver due to these perceived issues and enroll their kids elsewhere, driving enrollment – and thus funding – down.

Brough said while serving as John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff in 2009, the city had to make tough choices due to the recession. 

“We did it very transparently, engaging our workers in decisions with us so we could get it right and avoid surprising people,” she said. “I would suggest the board do it in a manner that is very transparent and open, engaging the community so you can see why they’re coming to the conclusions that they have come to.”

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