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A voting sign outside a polling station Nov. 7, 2023, at Christ Church United Methodist in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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In a campaign defined more by school safety than traditional issues that have animated Denver school board elections, three candidates who promised a shift from the status quo won their races by significant margins, according to preliminary results.

Former East High School Principal John Youngquist had a commanding lead over Kwame Spearman, co-owner of Tattered Cover bookstores, in the citywide at-large race, which had no incumbent.

Challenger Marlene De La Rosa defeated incumbent Charmaine Lindsay to represent northwest Denver, and challenger Kimberlee Sia defeated incumbent Scott Baldermann to represent southeast Denver.

“Our job is to start listening more deeply to the entire community,” Youngquist said Tuesday night after the second round of election results were posted at 8:30 p.m.

The school board has been controlled by union-backed members for the past two years. That group will continue to hold the majority on the seven-member board, but voters rejected all three of the union-backed candidates Tuesday.

The winners had significant financial backing from organizations linked to charter schools and education reform.

The election is likely to shake up a board that has been criticized as dysfunctional by changing the interpersonal dynamics — and potentially the political ones. Although all seven current board members are union-backed, they don’t always vote together, splitting on issues including whether police belong in schools.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest district, with more than 89,000 students. The next board will face several challenges, including how to deal with declining enrollment and how to address school safety concerns after several shootings in and around DPS high schools.

This election has been expensive, with candidates and outside groups spending nearly $1.9 million as of last week, according to reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. 

The biggest spender has been an independent expenditure committee called Better Leaders, Stronger Schools, which has spent more than $1.3 million. The committee is largely funded by a group called Denver Families Action, which is the political arm of an organization called Denver Families for Public Schools. Denver Families was founded in 2021 with the backing of several local charter school networks, and its board is made up of charter leaders.

In DPS election politics, groups supportive of charter schools are typically on one side, while the Denver Classroom Teachers Association is on the other. Both sides endorsed candidates in this year’s election. The union endorsed Spearman for an at-large seat, Lindsay in District 5, and Baldermann in District 1. Lindsay and Baldermann are incumbents.

Meanwhile, Denver Families Action endorsed Youngquist in the at-large race, De La Rosa in District 5, and Sia in District 1. Denver Mayor Mike Johnston endorsed the same three candidates, signaling that he wants change on the board.

The new board members are set to be sworn in on Nov. 28.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Melanie Asmar has covered Denver Public Schools for Chalkbeat Colorado since 2015. Asmar previously worked at Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered education. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit...