Denver public schools_Noel Community Arts School

A Noel Community Arts School student works through worksheets during a tutoring period at the Denver school on May 19.

On the heels of endorsements from the Denver teachers union, the local chapter of a national education reform group has endorsed a different set of candidates for Denver school board.

The Students for Education Reform Action Network Colorado announced Thursday that it is endorsing Tony Curcio in a three-way race for a school board seat representing northwest Denver. Curcio is an engineer and father of three with a long history of volunteering in the district, including on a committee that monitors how the district spends voter-approved funds.

In a three-way race for a seat representing the city at large, the student group, known as SFER, is endorsing Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who previously worked as a liaison between Denver Public Schools and the city. Menocal Harrigan attended Denver schools as a child and is now a parent whose oldest son will be attending a district kindergarten in the fall.

The group has not yet endorsed a candidate in a four-way race for a seat representing southeast Denver. A spokesperson said the group expects to do so soon.

The endorsements come with a promise of support. The announcement says SFER “will now unleash their expansive field and digital program, in which student activists will make contact with tens of thousands of voters in support of Curcio and Menocal Harrigan.”

In 2015, a political committee affiliated with SFER spent more than $42,000 to help elect pro-reform Denver school board candidates. In 2017, it spent nearly $24,000.

The committee got its funding from Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that also funds a political committee connected to the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

DFER officials said its political committee, which is separate from the student group, won’t deploy money in this year’s Denver school board races because DFER is focusing on statewide issues instead. In 2017, the DFER committee spent more than $400,000 to elect pro-reform candidates.

With DFER sitting out the race, it’s possible that more money will flow through SFER.

For more than a decade, Denver voters elected a majority of school board members who agreed with reform policies such as closing struggling schools and replicating high-performing charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

But the political winds have begun to shift. In 2017, two candidates backed by the teachers union, which opposes such reform policies, won election to the board. This year, the union and a coalition of community groups are trying to win at least two more seats, thus “flipping” the board majority. The union announced its endorsements earlier this week.

Curcio and Menocal Harrigan both told Chalkbeat they are supportive of charter schools that serve students well. Both also noted that the district needs to be realistic about the need to consolidate or close schools based on declining enrollment across the city.

SFER said it made its endorsements based on candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that asked about charter schools, the effects of gentrification on schools, and mental health supports for students, among other topics.

SFER has been pushing the district to hire at least one full-time mental health counselor in each school and ensure the counselors reflect the students they serve. A majority of Denver’s 93,000 students are students of color.

“What resonated most with me about Alexis Menocal Harrigan is her dedication toward student wellness,” Dena Firkins, the group’s regional field director, said in a statement. “Not only does she want to work with schools to have a full-time mental health counselor, she wants to enforce annual trauma-informed training for all school staff.”

In endorsing Curcio, the group cited his experience with school budgets and improvement plans.

“With three of his own children in Denver Public Schools … I know he’s personally invested in holding our schools accountable to put students first, as well as ensuring a dignified and professional wage for teachers,” said SFER student leader Jessie Jennett.

Curcio was also endorsed by outgoing northwest Denver board member Lisa Flores, who is not running for re-election.

Here’s a rundown of all the candidates who have declared thus far, in alphabetical order. Candidates have until Aug. 30 to jump into the race. The election is Nov. 5.

At-large

Tay Anderson

Anna DeWitt

Alexis Menocal Harrigan

Northwest Denver, District 5

Julie Bañuelos

Tony Curcio

Brad Laurvick

Southeast Denver, District 1

Scott Baldermann

Kristi Leech

Radhika Nath

Diana Romero Campbell

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

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