Cover photo: The Denver school board poses for a portrait Friday, Dec, 1, after three new board members were sworn in. From left in the front row: Board President Carrie Olson, Superintendent Alex Marrero, board Vice President Marlene De La Rosa. From left in the back row: Board members Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, treasurer Kimberlee Sia, secretary John Youngquist, Michelle Quattlebaum, and Scott Esserman. (Image courtesy of Denver Public Schools)
Carrie Olson was elected president of the Denver school board on Friday, Dec. 1, and all three new members were elected to other leadership positions, signifying a new direction for the board in the wake of the November election.
Marlene De La Rosa, Kimberlee Sia, and John Youngquist took the oath of office as new members replacing three incumbents in a shakeup of the seven-member board. Olson, a former DPS teacher who previously served as board president in 2019-21, defeated board member Michelle Quattlebaum in a secret ballot of the seven-member board.
Olson replaces Xóchitl Gaytán as president, though Gaytán remains on the board.
“This is year 39 for me in Denver Public Schools (including teacher and board service), and I wanted this opportunity to lead us to a new place where we can work together as a board,” Olson said in an interview after the board meeting.
“I really think we will be grounded in working together to tackle the tough issues and be able to show the public that we can make a difference in the lives of students, teachers, staff and community members,” she said.
The tough issues include declining enrollment and the threat of more school closures, enhancing school safety, and raising academic achievement particularly for low-income and students of color.
Despite sometimes conflicting opinions on how to approach those issues, Olson said, her first priority is to work with current and new board members to strive for a consensus that moves the district forward.
“All seven of us, including the new board members, ran because we want to make a difference, and we all have students and families as our priority,” she said. “I always believe in the power of people to work together for a common cause.”
In public balloting for the other two-year leadership posts, De La Rosa defeated Scott Esserman for board vice president, Sia defeated Esserman for treasurer and Youngquist won unopposed as secretary. Quattlebaum, who has been board secretary the past two years, declined to run again and supported Youngquist as secretary.
The three new members look to be unified in their approach to bringing changes to district leadership based on their criticism during the campaign that the board has been largely dysfunctional and ineffective the past two years.
De La Rosa and Sia easily defeated two incumbents in their northeast and southeast Denver districts, and the third incumbent – Auon’tai Aunderson – declined to run for re-election, opening the door for former DPS educator Youngquist to win his race to represent the city at-large.
When elected in 2017, Olson left a 33-year teaching career to comply with DPS policy that board members cannot be employed by the district they oversee.
Olson holds a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver with an emphasis on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She is a consultant for curriculum development for Educators for International Human Rights and is an adjunct professor at DU in the Teacher Education Program.
Prior to the board meeting, the three new members took their oath of office amid applauding family and friends gathered at the district’s downtown central office.
“I have been around Denver Public Schools for a long while,” said Youngquist, a former East High School principal and
district administrator who was sworn in by Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown. “I’m proud of Denver Public Schools and committed to the success of all students.”
His comments were echoed by De La Rosa and Sia. De La Rosa, a parent and community activist who recently retired as an immigration court specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice, was sworn in by federal immigration Judge Eileen Trujillo.
“I’m grateful for the community support I’ve had for the past three decades,” De La Rosa said. “It’s important as a single parent to represent all the families in northeast Denver.”
Sia, who also was sworn in by Judge Casey Brown, is an education consultant and former CEO of the KIPP Colorado charter school network and former CEO of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.
Gaytån opened the swearing-in session by welcoming the new board members as did Anderson, Quattlebaum, and Esserman. Neither of the defeated incumbents, Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsey, attended the ceremony.
“We are coming in as a team and allowing a fresh perspective to come (to the board),” Gaytán said.
The three new board members were elected as a slate after the groups Better Leaders, Stronger Schools and Denver Families Action spent more than $1 million to support them. Those groups are funded in part by City Fund, which awards grants to non-profit educational and community organizations in cities across the country.
City Fund’s focus is to promote more autonomy and innovation for public schools, including charter schools, which at times puts them at odds with teacher unions and elected boards. The opponents who were defeated by the three new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
The three new members are in office for four years, while the other four board posts will be up in the 2025 election.