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Racial politics, redistricting, and the Denver school board

Portrait of new Denver school board with Superintendent Alex Marrero, December 2023

Editor’s note: This is May’s piece by Boardhawk columnist Alexis Menocal Harrigan.

I am not a basketball fanatic, however with the Nuggets in the playoffs, Caitlin Clark fandom, and my nine-year-old in a youth rec league, I am engrossed in the sport lately.

I have been thoroughly entertained by the flopping at the pro-level while admiring the tough as nails third- and fourth-graders, learning not just fundamentals, but character development and integrity. The problem is that when the Lakers are always crying foul, it’s hard to know when to take a real injury seriously. 

This sport reminds me that adults often act silly and our children are the best hope for our future. It’s time for many adults in the Denver education scene to go back to basics and build some character. To stop doing the political equivalent of flopping. 

There are real problems Denver Public Schools must address: the migrant student crisis, the jarring disparities in Black and Latino student achievement, growth, and post-secondary readiness, and parents/guardians’ inability to make informed decisions about the future of their child’s education due to lack of transparent and readily available data. 

There are also board and community members who are “flopping” and distracting from the real issues that must be resolved. 

Some board and community members are lowering the standards we should expect from our civic leaders, and are using intimidation to keep the public from criticizing its elected officials. 

These individuals are calling foul after foul but doing little to fix DPS’s ever-growing list of high-priority problems to tackle.

The recent redistricting debate serves as an excellent example.

The racial politics of redistricting

Like many of you, I wanted the board to get redistricting done and over with so we could all move on to other more important matters.

Redistricting is at long last complete with board members Marlene De La Rosa and Xóchitl Gaytán voting for Map B and the remaining members voting for Map C. The common theme among Map C supporters was that it kept historically Black communities in a district historically held by Black board members. 

What surprised me was the board members who voted for C’s blatant disregard of the results of the community survey which favored Map B consistently citywide. Ironically, the delay for finalizing redistricting was largely due to calls for more community input, which despite district attempts was meager at best. 

I doubt I would be writing about this topic if the board and community members who pushed so strongly for Five Points and Whittier to be included in Map C pushed just as hard for Black students to be reading at grade level. 

Black students in grades 3-5 have a grade level proficiency of 24% across all DPS schools. That number dips to 21% when you just include district-run schools. When you zoom out, you find that DPS has the largest gaps in the state between Black and white students

Instead we have board members and community members who speak about injustice, but do little to tackle the injustices that exist with our students’ academic achievement. 

Two things can happen at once without being in conflict; we can fight historic systems of oppression while also holding all leaders – including Black and brown ones – to account. 

Tiptoeing meets bullying

Denver community members tread very lightly when discussing racial politics on the DPS board. It has become a third-rail issue that many are afraid to touch for fear of being called racist or anti-Black. 

We can see it among some of the white board members who delicately tiptoe around discussions and find the gentlest ways to disagree or question their Black or Latina colleagues.

But board member Scott Esserman has no problem continuing to undermine his Latina colleague, Xóchitl Gaytán by consistently attempting to get a last word in on any topic in which they disagree. If the other white male board member, John Youngquist, treated Quattlebaum similarly, I am sure we would be hearing accusations of racism and sexism.

Esserman’s aggression toward Gaytán has softened over the last two years, following Gaytán’s public claims of harassment. At the time, when Gaytán experienced continued aggression, very few people stood publicly in support of her. Shame on us.

Board colleagues should challenge each other. However, lines have been crossed in the past moving far beyond civic debate to intimidation, bullying, and harassment. There is a lot of nuance here, particularly when combined with the intersectionality of race, gender, and power. There is a difference between criticizing an elected official and treating them with malice.

It is easy for some people to cry foul (or racism) when a woman of color on the school board is criticized. The problem with this behavior is that all public officials should be held to high standards and be prepared to answer to the communities they represent, and you don’t get a pass for being Black or Latino. 

I am a Denver constituent and the first amendment grants me the right to criticize the  government, which I do often as a columnist for this media outlet. 

My last article called out board members Michelle Quattlebaum, Scott Esserman, and Carrie Olson for how they have handled some of the most recent redistricting conversations. I wrote that Quattelbaum was playing oppression olympics (a term used to describe the comparison and competition of one marginalized group’s oppression to another’s, to determine who is the most oppressed) for her comments about  the district’s responsiveness to Latino community pressure for changes to maps. She said the Black community should receive similar treatment. 

The problem is that the challenges made by the Latino community for the massive dilution of Latino vote did not hold the same weight or water within the Black community, which is why you haven’t heard an outcry in the same way for any of the three maps that remained.

I also critiqued Olson and Esserman, calling them the embodiment of white guilt and a white savior, respectively. I stand by all those comments.

The demagoguery of Auon’tai Anderson

During the April 15 public comment session, a former board member Auon’tai Anderson called for the board to repudiate my article as anti-black. He is quick to hurl such accusations, but his saying it does not make it so.

The Honorable Auon’tai Anderson (as he insists on being called) can’t help himself. He is struggling to stay relevant in a community that is shouting “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” 

It is laughably ironic that the man who has criticized countless women of color in positions of leadership is asking for my article to be condemned as anti-Black. A man who has consistently in public and private settings showed misogynistic behavior toward women, including women of color within DPS. A man who took space and attention from women of color who have had to carve it out for themselves and their communities when fighting true injustice through civil disobedience or through coalition building. 

The icing on top of Anderson’s comment was the nod to Governor Polis saying we should disagree better. 

Anderson calling for “disagreeing better” while citing the governor of our state is an interesting choice, considering Anderson has blasted countless elected officials, including the governor, Former Mayor Michael Hancock, Current Mayor Mike Johnston, and most members of the Colorado congressional delegation. 

Much of his last year in office was spent being misogynistic and antagonistic toward then-President Gaytán. I could fill an entire article just on the elected officials Anderson has blasted or disagreed with. 

Don’t let this guy determine how and when you hold your elected officials to account, because the Denver school board certainly doesn’t take his opinions seriously. Since his call for the board members to “stand-up” to me, call my writing anti-Black, and say they will “not tolerate it whatsoever,” I have yet to receive a call, text, or email from a board member or any member of the public condemning my piece.

The Denver school board has never reprimanded me. Anderson can’t say the same.