A few miles apart from each other, two candidates for the Denver Public Schools Board of Education held overlapping kickoff events in early June, both hoping to earn an open seat on the board this November. Scott Esserman and Nicky Yollick are the first two candidates to be actively campaigning for the open at-large seat on the board, which is composed of five district representatives and two at-large members.
Both candidates already raised their seed money, secured high profile endorsements, hired core campaign staff, and are actively seeking your vote. Both also talked with The Denver North Star after their kickoffs to introduce themselves to North Denver voters.
Esserman touts his experience as an educator first and foremost: a former English teacher including at Northfield High School in Northeastern Denver, Esserman believes his combination of experience working in schools professionally and as an active parent makes him the best choice for the seat. Esserman has chaired DPS’ District Accountability Committee, served on the collaborative school committees for his children’s schools, and held leadership positions in community organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. “I bring a unique perspective,” said Esserman, adding that leadership experience is a “critical part of being a board member that’s managing a billion dollar budget.” Esserman is currently a stay-at-home father which, he says, has afforded him the privilege of volunteer service. His older child graduated this year from Manual and his younger will be entering the 8th grade next fall.
Esserman talked at length about his goal of Denver schools incorporating more of a community school model, a concept that means schools can be the center of a DPS’ family’s life in more ways than just educational hours. Many DPS schools serve as food banks for families in need for instance. He would have liked to see more schools open as COVID vaccine sites and hopes schools can fill similar roles in the future.
He also sees room for improvement in teaching children of color. “The DPS system fails Black and Hispanic students,” Esserman said during his interview, adding that one of the most crucial things the district needs to work on is closing the achievement gap. “I know white children are going to succeed just looking at the percentages.” Part of his solution is the community school model. For Esserman, it’s “foolish” to think the district can only address students’ academic learning without also addressing issues like food and housing insecurity and he wants to see more “trauma informed support” for students and families both. For Esserman, schools should be “community led and DPS supported.”
Regarding the board’s decision on a new superintendent, Esserman said he “was incredibly impressed with the process this board implemented,” adding his praise for all three finalists and the process that resulted in three finalists instead of one (many community members were critical of the previous process that resulted in now former superintendent Cordova being the only finalist last time). He believes the process had good representation from across the DPS community, including an “outstanding” interview conducted by DPS students.
Esserman held his kickoff at Fuller Park, with an introduction and endorsement from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. In addition to Weiser, notable supporters in attendance included State Board of Education member Dr. Lisa Escárcega and DPS Board of Education Director Tay Anderson. He’s also secured an early endorsement from Colorado Working Families Party as well elected officials including RTD Director Shontel Lewis and Former State Representative Joe Salazar. As of June 1, his campaign has raised $14,541.70. The largest contribution to date is $1,000 from Robert Davis, who Esserman explained is a lifelong friend, officiant for his wedding, and rabbi who hired him as a teenager to work in a Colorado summer camp, which made him fall in love with the state.
Yollick describes himself as a “consistent, aggressive, progressive voice in DPS politics.” He believes his activism, at times in the public eye and at other times behind the scenes, makes him the best choice for the open seat. Yollick has worked with organizations ranging from Colorado Latinos Rise, where they engaged 80,000 households in communities of color, to the local and state Democratic party, where he’s served in various capacities and advocated for more pro public education policy stances. At a time of big personalities in local politics, Yollick wants people to know that he’s equally as comfortable leading the charge as he is quietly working with stakeholders on issues where he isn’t the frontman. His goal is to get “as much people power in this movement as we can.”
Yollick says his biggest two policy priorities are achieving equity and community-based decision making, adding that he’s a champion for neighborhood schools. He highlighted the consent decree as one place the district has fallen short in terms of equity. In 2012, a federal judge ordered DPS to provide English Language Acquisition programming for students with low English proficiency. The district has repeatedly failed to meet the mandate.
For Yollick, that discrepancy carries over to problems he sees with DPS’ school choice model. “Charter schools can be wonderful on a small scale — when they’re being truly innovative…my concern is how charters are being used in the DPS system,” said Yollick. He believes the current system is “lifting up a few hundred students while pushing down a few thousand.” He noted that last year many charters could get forgivable loans since they are somewhat outside the public system but most schools couldn’t. He’d like their leadership to be more transparent and to alter the funding structure to be less reliant on philanthropic gifts that benefit wealthy neighborhoods. At the same time, Yollick notes, “Folks are getting very tired of this binary conversation” between charters vs neighborhood schools and he hopes to work with advocates for both. Issues of racial discrepancy in schools are personal for Yollick. His partner, who is finishing a nursing program at Regis University, is Black. While he’s white, his children will be people of color.
Regarding the incoming superintendent, Yollick noted the board has made a decision and the community should both support the choice and hold them accountable. “Alex Marrero deserves every chance to succeed,” explained Yollick. He added he’s glad to see that the district selected a superintendent who was himself an English language learner in school. He’s hopeful for more “authentic community engagement” in the future and said he hopes the new superintendent puts more power in the hands of the community.
Yollick held his kickoff at the home of Anna DeWitt, a teacher at North High School. He was joined by prominent Democratic leaders including Dr. Radhika Nath, a member of the Democratic National Committee, Pilar Chapa, the former Executive Director for the Colorado Democratic Party, and former elected officials Dr. Val Flores and Senator Daniel Kagan. He’s also secured support from Denver’s CU Regent Jack Kroll, former legislator and labor leader Mike Cerbo, and former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff appears on his donor list. As of June 1, he’s raised $20,455.95 with his largest contribution, a total of $2,000, coming from Denver resident Chris Lee, who Yollick described as a DPS parent and education activist who serves on the district accountability committee and has been active in the schools.
While Esserman and Yollick are the first two candidates actively campaigning, it’s unlikely to be a two man race. Open seats generally draw a variety of candidates and several other people are in various stages of formality. Two others have filed formal committees with the Colorado Secretary of State. Jorge Hernandez has an active committee but announced in March he was withdrawing. Joseph Camp also has an active committee but has reported no fundraising or spending and did not respond to an inquiry about his candidacy. Two others, Marla Benavides and Jane Shirley, have submitted their statements of intent to the district and Denver Elections, but haven’t filed formal committees with the Secretary of State. The Denver North Star will continue to profile candidates as they file and begin to campaign and we will be following the race through the November election.