A Denver father who served in the military and is concerned about school safety announced Thursday that he’s running for a seat on the school board.
Paul Ballenger has filed to run for an at-large seat representing the entire city. He’s taking on at least two opponents: incumbent Auon’tai Anderson, who was elected to the board in 2019 and currently serves as vice president, and Kwame Spearman, who was until recently the CEO of independent bookstore chain Tattered Cover and ran for Denver mayor earlier this year.
John Youngquist, who was formerly principal of Denver’s East High School, said this week that he is also considering running for the at-large seat but hasn’t decided yet.
Three of the seven Denver school board seats are up for grabs Nov. 7. The election has the potential to change the dynamics of the board, which has been criticized for infighting and power struggles between some members over the past year.
Also at stake is how the board will deal with declining enrollment and respond to safety concerns, especially after a high-profile shooting at East High in March.
Ballenger, 46, referenced the shooting in his announcement on the sidewalk in front of Denver Public Schools headquarters. He said the shooting on March 22 “changed everything.”
“That was the day I came to realize the ineffective safety policies my family and our school felt were felt by all,” said Ballenger, who is a single dad to a daughter who finished middle school at McAuliffe International School this week and will attend Northfield High next year.
Ballenger said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps more than 20 years ago. After his military service, he worked as a firefighter and EMT. He said he came to Colorado in 2016 to help start a security company. In 2020, he and his daughter moved to Denver, where they live in the Central Park neighborhood. Ballenger still works in security as a consultant.
In an interview, he said his security experience would be an asset to a district struggling with how to keep its schools safe. He said the board’s 2020 decision to remove police officers from schools — which it temporarily reversed in the wake of the East shooting — was made without enough community feedback. Schools should be able to choose whether or not to have a police officer, known as a school resource officer, or SRO, Ballenger said.
“I think there should be much more autonomy at the principal level to make decisions,” he said. “If a principal … says ‘Hey, you know what, there’s a lot of violence in the neighborhood, there’s been gang activity, … I’m a little concerned with guns coming to school, I want to ramp up for a bit until things cool off,’ I think that’s a very reasonable request.”
Ballenger said he’s been frustrated by the school board’s infighting. If elected, he said he wants to “restore some dignity” to the board and get members back to business.
“I want to make school board meetings boring again,” Ballenger said.
He said he knows the board faces tough decisions, including about whether to close schools with low enrollment. But Ballenger said the closure process has fallen short.
“I’ve heard the word ‘blindsided’ over and over again,” he said. “In the event that school closures have to happen, we have to make sure that they are fair, make sure that they are equitable, and that we’re involving the community early on so they can either advocate for their school or at least understand that changes could be happening.”
Ballenger neither aligned himself with nor distanced himself from the philosophy of education reform, which is often a dividing line in Denver school board elections. Rather, he said he believes that “if a school is working well for the children and the staff, it should be left alone.”
In his announcement, Ballenger said his experience as “an Army guy, a businessman, a security expert, and a dad to a really great kid,” makes him “uniquely positioned to assist.”
“More than anything, I want every parent in Denver to be free from worry as to whether their child is in danger, but instead to know in full faith that their child is thriving,” he said.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.