09 April 2006

The Denver County Democratic Party Assembly

Along with 700 plus other Democrats with a similarly strong sense of duty and great ability to tolerate excruciating parliamentary procedure nonsense, I participated in the Democratic Party Assembly yesterday.

The place was well chosen. Lincoln High School is in the middle of both House District 1 and Senate District 32, the only contested Democratic races this season.

Southwest Denver and Lincoln High School

At the intersection of South Federal Boulevard and Evans Avenue, the neighborhood that Lincoln High School serves is everything that Washington Park is not. They are the ying and yang of Denver. Washington Park is predominantly white, quiet, well tended, English speaking (except for the weekend visitors to the park who speak every language found on the globe from Farsi to Spanish to Mandarin), full of oversized houses, the product of recent pop tops or scrapes on tiny lots, joggers and people walking their pedigreed dogs. The Southwest Denver neighborhood served by Lincoln High is classic strip mall, less the national chains. Instead, signs in Spanish are as common as those in English, with a significant number sporting Spanglish instead, the shops are independent clones of their more famous franchise models with a Southwestern flair and less polish. The houses are small, single story 40s and 50s cottages on modest lots. Instead of pedigreed dogs walking down the street, there are mutts with bad dispositions chained up behind chain link fences. Instead of gleaming Lincoln Navigators parked in front of neo-Tudor mini-mansions, there are old Buicks almost eligible for classic plate status being washed with hoses and buckets.

This isn't to say that the neighborhood is a ghetto or truly distressed. The rent to own shops, payday loan store fronts, pawn shops, sex shops, and hourly motels of East Colfax were few and far between. Whether due to the drug free, tobacco free signs on the side of the school, or the abundance of out of the neighborhood visitors, or due to the character of the neighborhood, or the hour of the day, there were no clusters of menancing might be gang members hanging out on street corners.

If the statistics displayed prominently on the display case outside the auditorium in the school are correct, the student body at Lincoln is compliant but far behind the curve in what they are learning. The school has uniforms for its students. While the statistics related that Lincoln had almost 90% attendance (a bit better than the district average), a lower than district average dropout rate, and a graduation rate of 79% (just a hair under the district average), the recent history of the school's performance on CSAPs and the ACTs has been undeniably dismal.

16% of students scored at the proficient or advanced levels in reading, 3% in math, and 9% in writing.

No traditional public school in the Denver Public Schools is doing less well on the CSAPs. The state average in 2004 was 66% in reading, 42% in math and 53% in writing.

The trend, moreover, is towards declining performance. This, in large part, is a function of the school's poverty. Two-thirds of the students at the school are poor, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced price lunches (compared to a little less than half for Denver Public Schools as a whole). West High School is the only high school in the District (and quite possibly, the state) with a less affluent student body, and the student body at Lincoln is less "stable" than at West.

These scores are far under half the percentages found in the already less than stellar Denver Public Scoool district as a whole, whose averages closely approximately the new principal's goals for the school. Improvements in categories like students not eligible for free lunch (probably because those who don't qualify are mostly just barely over the limit or qualify but didn't apply), students who speak English only, students not in special education (only a small percentage are in special education), and students at the same school for two or more years, were only modest. The only category of students doing significantly better than the average at Lincoln High are the 8% of students or so who are white, and they are only coming close to the average achievement levels in the district.

The CSAPs are imperfect measures. As a means of ranking students academically against their peers in Colorado they are a reasonable, if rough, gauge of performance, in line with many other measures of the same things, like the ACTs, and this level of accuracy is acceptable to students as they suffer no personal consequences based upon their test performances.

As a means of rating the quality of teaching being done in schools, standing alone, the CSAPs are worthless. It is hardly a surprise that one of the least affluent student bodies in the state produces one of the lowest sets of test scores. Indeed, it is remarkable and a testament to the efforts of the teachers there, that the school functions with as much regularity as it does. Any meaningful use of the CSAPs to evaluate school performance needs to either look at change in performance of students at the school based on prior performance of the same students, or more crudely a model based on free and reduced lunch percentages, student stability, special education student percentages and English as a second language percentages.

The school's profile describes Lincoln High's transformation over the last generation:

In the forty-two years that Abraham Lincoln High School has been serving Denver's southwest community, it has seen a dramatic shift in the students it educates. In 1960, 95% of the students at Abraham Lincoln High School were white. Since 1980, Lincoln High School has seen a steady growth of students from Sudan, Somalia, China, Vietnam, and Mexico. This current school year, 2002-2003, 80.5% of our students are of Hispanic descent, 8.4% White, 7.0% Asian, 3.3% African-American, and 0.8% American Indian.

The Process

The County Assembly, like most official Democratic party functions, was mostly speeches and empty formalism.

Some of the speeches were good. Andrew Romanoff (the Speaker of the State House who represents the House District adjacent to mine) and Bill Ritter (the Democratic candidate for Governor and a former District Attorney from Denver who lives in my House District) both made very clear that the Democratic party in Colorado is about bread and butter politics, about balancing budgets, making schools work and getting health care to average Coloradans, about maintaing a social safety net for the vulnerable and doing what is possible in the context of a budget process set up in the state constitution that is seriously flawed.

There was also ample opportunity to meet and greet Denver's elected officials and candidates, and many present took the opportunity to do so.

The formalism was painful. The assembly trudged through the approval of the party platform for the county in an exercise not all of those present fully understood, with the only notable point being an overwhelming rejection of a hard line approach to immigration. Outside the big races, discussed below, the rest of the process was a matter of unanimous approvals of standard steps in the process, and obtaining volunteers for the next stage in the process (in House District 3, which had a healthy four or five dozen people in attendance, the only one of the myriad positions to be filled for subsequent assemblies and conventions had more volunteers than spaces available, there was a three way race for a seat on the committee to draft the state party platform).

As usual, the bottom line is that the caucus process wastes a lot of valuable time of party activists that would be better devoted to other more useful ends. Yet, most of us came away from the event not even knowing first hand the results of the couple of votes that did matter at the event.

Next week, I will attend a fifteen or twenty minute meeting to ratify the only person running in House District 3 as a Democrat, Anne McGihon, the incumbent, as our nominee in 2006. At this time, I'm not aware of anyone running against her in the Republican party or a third party, although it isn't too late for a placeholder to appear out of the woodwork.

On May 20, 2006 in Greeley, I will help ratify the nominations of Diana DeGette, Bill Ritter and his running mate Barbara O'Brien in the Governor's race, Ken Gordon for Secretary of State, Cary Kennedy for Treasurer, and Fern O'Brien for Attorney General (Mr. Johnson won't make it onto the ballot after the convention vote in the attorney general's race), as Democratic party nominees, and rubber stamp the product of the state party platform committee which will promptly be ignored. Even the 7th Congressional District assembly will be a non-event, which will give Ed Perlmutter the top line place on the primary ballot, as the other two candidates in that race have chosen to petition onto the ballot. Perhaps, if we are lucky, there will be a spirited contested race for CU-Regent or the State Board of Education, although I'm not aware of one at this time.

The Big Votes

While I was there, as I am not in either HD 1 and SD 32, I missed the really important votes. So, I rely on others for reports of what happened. Commentator Dan Willis at Colorado Pols reports:

24 votes
44% - top line on ballot

19 votes
35% - 2nd line on ballot

11 votes
20% - has option open to petition onto ballot

These are the only three candidates for the post of whom I am aware. Incidentally, these results to support the proposition that excellent goodies at the assembly do not produce votes for candidates on the merits. Margaret Atencio offered donuts which were, in my humble opinion, the best free goodies at Lincoln High, and yet came in a dismal third place. Hernandez offered no bribes worth mentioning to would be voters, and Labuda's bannanas were good, but not that good (although they were specifically chosen to be from the labor friendly bannana supplier possible, a thoughtful touch).

Atencio is an old hand state party official, while the other two have lower profile, but substantial political experience. Her defeat is something of a vote of no confidence in the party leadership, whom one might expect to be the most respected and talented of the people who are not elected officials in the party.

Commentator Lynn Pressnall states:

I participated in the vote count for SD32. There were 221 ballots cast.
129 Mello
85 Coleman
7 ballots not counted

I didn’t write down the reason for each of the 7 uncounted but the ballots were kept by the assembly so if someone wanted to check they could determine the reason for each. My recollection is 3 were unsigned and 4 named Romer. But again, I can’t say for certain.

Romer and Mello are young, dynamic, rising stars in the party. Fran Coleman is an incumbent member of the state house.

Chris Romer is also seeking the SD 32 seat, but plans to petition onto the ballot rather than using the caucus process. Both Jennifer Mello and Fran Coleman made a strong enough showing to earn a place on the August primary ballot. The primary itself will be something of a toss up. It will be even more dicey if Romer makes it onto the ballot, as I suspect that he will. Three way races are always unpredictable. Insiders that I have encountered have been much more upbeat about Romer and Mello than Coleman (and to be perfectly honest, more of favored Romer than Mello from within that group -- I lack a strong opinion on any candidate in the face), but Coleman has far greater name recognition, which matters more in the primary, where voters have less information, than in the assembly, where candidates make speeches moments before the vote.

So, that is the political news from this weekend in Denver.

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