School Board Election Intense, Personal

District vote pits preacher against fiery incumbent

Rita Montero is in her natural position – a fight.

This time, the incumbent is battling the Rev. Lucia Guzman for election to the school board seat representing northwest Denver.

The campaign is the board’s most heated. Both candidates accuse the other of being unqualified. Each says the other cannot properly represent the area that includes lower income Hispanic families and more affluent whites.

”Rita has had four years to make a difference, and nothing has changed,” said Guzman, former director of the Colorado Council of Churches. ”The community wanted someone who would be there for kids.”

How, Montero responds, can you be there for kids when you don’t have any, like Guzman?

”When you make decisions you don’t have to live by but expect others to live by, that’s unacceptable,” said Montero, whose son attends Hamilton Middle School. ”The better person to be on the board is the person with kids in the district.”

Guzman counters, ”How many teachers are single or have no kids? Does that mean they can’t teach. ”

And if Montero is so committed, to northwest Denver, Guzman continued, why did she transfer her son from a middle school near home to Hamiliton, miles away in southeast Denver?

Montero has said Hamilton served her son’s needs better.

The race follows the pattern Montero has established during her four years on the board. She’s fought with superintendents, other board and staff members, and parents over bilingual education and other issues.

She defends her positions with strong arguments that at times include personal insults. She has won some, lost some and the district is better off for her passion, supporters say.

”She’s not afraid to speak her mind,” said Ed Cordova, former principal of West High School. ”This is one school board member who really has done something for the Hispanic student population. She goes to schools, she understands the needs.”

Paul Sandoval, a former Montero supporter now backing Guzman, interprets things differently.

”She’s not a good listener,” said Sandoval, a former school board member. ”She gives no weight to what other people say.”

The split between the two is especially clear in the quarrel over what kind of new elementary school to build in the area.

Guzman backs a proposal supported by many residents that calls for a Montessori school that teaches children equally in English and Spanish.

Montero favors a fundamental school with Spanish enrichment programs. She said most Hispanic residents want a fundamental approach that has been successful for minority students. Both ideas were one vote short of passage by the board Thursday. A decision was put off until after the Nov. 2 election.

Guzman says Montero is ”shutting the door on families. One of my key attributes is I’m an outstanding listener.”

Montero says parents don’t always have the right answer, and ”you don’t make decisions on who screams the loudest.”

The two also differ on vouchers: Guzman opposes them; Montero would support them if private schools meet the same requirements as public schools.

Montero spent much of her time moving the district from bilingual instruction to stressing English language acquistion. She claims Guzman will reverse that. She even accused Guzman of wanting to keep Spanish speakers in all-Spanish classes for 12 years. She based that on Guzman’s support of the dual language school.

But Guzman fully supports the district’s new approach. And she supports Superintendent Chip Zullinger, whose hiring in August Montero opposed.

As for the nasty campaign, Montero says it’s natural.

”Nobody gets along up here. They all hate each other.”

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