This is a profile of one of two candidates in Centennial City Council District 1, representing the far west part of the city, encompassing most areas between South Broadway and Colorado Boulevard.
When schools in Denver Public Schools would fall behind on performance measures such as test scores and graduation rates, Fernando Branch would step in as a “turnaround” leader to help steer the ship back on track.
“It’s a very specific niche where you have to have a real sense of community — you have to navigate very complex situations that aren’t always black and white,” Branch said.
Branch would come to schools that landed in a worrying status on what’s known as the state’s “accountability clock.” The clock only allows schools to receive low performance ratings for five years in a row.
After that, they must come before the Colorado Board of Education, which is required to direct a course of action designed to “dramatically increase student achievement,” according to the Colorado Department of Education.
Branch’s job was to prevent schools from needing state intervention, and he tackled issues such as school culture — aspects ranging from policy conflicts to challenges arising from school demographics and personalities, Branch said.
“A failing school is not a failing school because there are bad students or a failure of instruction — a failing school happens because there’s a lack” of necessary protocols, Branch said.
Branch would check on whether school staff were getting feedback from administrators, taking steps to ensure teachers had the chance to look at different strategies.
It was about “giving different opportunities for educators and students to authentically be themselves,” Branch said.
Branch said the way he navigated looking at school performance ties into how he has run his race for Centennial City Council: A leader must “be really grassroots” and give a community a voice “to really steer the ship,” he said.
“Because collectively, it’s not just one leader that’s creating all this change,” Branch said.
Branch, 41, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he saw inequities in his neighborhood schools in the quality of education in comparison to other communities.
He participated in summer programs and saw that students in other schools were learning things differently than he was — they would have different textbooks with different curriculum or newer computers, Branch said.
“I knew then it wasn’t an even playing field in education,” Branch said. He added: “I really, at that point, made my mind that I was going to pay it forward, similar to how my mentors and teachers really supported and went above and beyond for me. I wanted to do that same thing for students and youth that needed that extra push.”
He came to Colorado because 10 years ago, “Colorado was, and it still is, one of the most progressive and innovative states in the country around education reform, and I wanted to be a part of the solution,” Branch said.
Branch feels his experience in education would lead him to look at issues on city council from a different perspective.
“I’m going to be open minded to both innovation but, also, what works? I don’t think we should change systems if they’re functioning at a really good rate,” Branch said. But he also intends to dig into details and “ask those difficult questions that may not get asked right now,” he added.
Branch also worked as a teacher for 10 years and as an assistant principal for about eight years, according to him and his LinkedIn page. He serves in a philanthropic position as the senior director of partnerships and programs at the Colorado “I Have A Dream” Foundation, an organization that helps students around the Front Range get “to and through” college, Branch said.
Ideas on housing, law enforcement
Branch is passionate about the issue of housing in Centennial, envisioning change for developments such as The Streets at SouthGlenn outdoor mall, which faces a proposed redevelopment. The shopping center’s former Sears property is owned by Northwood Investors, which wants to add apartments there.
Alberta Development Partners — which controls nearly all of the rest of SouthGlenn — wants to put in apartments and office space, and retail and entertainment establishments, where the Macy’s stands.
Branch wants to target certain housing toward “civil service workers” such as teachers, police officers and firefighters, he said.
“What if we, with these (housing units) in particular, we zone 30% of them for our service providers? These are people working jobs that, you and I, they’re at work before we wake up,” Branch said.
Looking to the future, those service workers who might be in their early 20s will likely get married and have kids, and “they’re not going to leave our community — they’re just going to upgrade,” Branch said.
With bigger salaries, they could move into other areas of Centennial in single-family homes, Branch said. That trend would keep the city’s property values high, he added.
“We can’t do that if we’re expecting a 28-year-old to pay $3,000 a month for an apartment,” Branch said. He added: “We’re going to price people out, and I don’t think that’s a smart strategy for our city.”
Such a plan would also give Centennial an opportunity to think about its renters who may be living off their Social Security income, said Branch, who floated the idea of “taking another 15% to 20% of those units” and making them attainable for the city’s elderly population.
Branch also serves on Centennial’s Public Safety Advisory board, according to a bio page online. Branch and other residents of Centennial give feedback to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and hear perspective from deputies on how law enforcement handles certain situations, Branch said.
He feels that “we can do a better job of ensuring that those young men and young women, or other, feel that they’re showing up as their best selves,” Branch said, saying he wants to support officers’ mental health.
“Officers, just like any other profession, need to have … their mental health and their social-emotional needs met,” Branch said.
In a Sept. 29 campaign newsletter, his opponent, Robyn Carnes, referred to Branch as “far left” based on a questionnaire.
The candidates both were given a series of questions to answer from an entity called ActiVote. ActiVote is a program that provides “easy access to your elections and what candidates really stand for, while filtering out all the noise,” according to its website. Based on the answers, the program placed them on a spectrum, according to Carnes and Branch.
“In a nonpartisan race, I’ve done my best to run my campaign that reflects the issues of our residents and to stay away from the national type of lingo around partisanness of what’s going on in elections around the country,” Branch said. He added: “People who know me and have had conversations with me (know) I’m in the center.”
He continued: “I see myself as a little bit of where she sees herself … I would say I’m left-leaning but very much in the center.”
Branch’s campaign website says he supports “radical change for social justice reform.”
The website adds: “Social justice movements are alive and should not be feared. Centennial is a beacon of hope for what is possible when city governance works with law enforcement to find the right way. We all can choose the issues that most stir our passions for justice to ensure that Centennial is leading the State and the nation in this issue.”
Regarding law enforcement, if there are gaps for improvement, the city should talk about it, Branch said.
“I believe in Arapahoe County, the justice, equity, diversity things around hiring and implementing those trainings, they’re doing a great job” already, Branch said. “I want to support them to do an even better job.”
“The steps I gave you today as far as police reform, that’s my ‘radical’ change,” Branch said.
His campaign contributions show many donations from out of state, which Branch said came from friends and family.
“I have a pretty big network … friends, family, people who know me and love me dearly,” Branch said. The trend in donations “makes total sense being a first-time candidate,” said Branch, who said his past couple months of donations have been primarily Centennial-based.
Former Centennial City Councilmember Vorry Moon endorsed Branch, according to his campaign website, and Branch has also been endorsed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, according to Branch.
“I think (the support from them) says that I’m doing this for the right reason,” Branch said. “I’m listening to the voices of the residents of the community.”