Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Skeletons in the Closet Updated

I have not weighed in regularly as the Denver Public Schools’ superintendent search has been happening. Other education warriors have done an excellent job documenting its twists and turns and have been very loud and strong in their advocacy for accountability and transparency. But now as the process has seemingly devolved into a one and only candidate being put forth, I feel compelled to weigh in, for the similarity to the last superintendent search in 2009 is ringing loud and clear. A cover-up of sorts. In both instances DPS has had to choose an insider with the hope that “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is covered up to some extent. And I was there in 2009 as Tom Boasberg was pushed across the finish line.


Flash back to the first weekend in January 2009. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter named Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the Senate vacancy created by President-elect Obama’s selection of Ken Salazar to become Secretary of the Interior. On that first Saturday of 2009 the DPS Board of Education met in executive session to discuss who should become Bennet’s successor. Michael Bennet was present for much of that session. Like today’s search there was a push from some Board members and the Denver community at large to at the very least interview outside candidates, and candidates who looked more like DPS’ students, i.e., someone of color. Few, if any board members, realized that while we were able to expand the pool somewhat, the decision to hire Tom Boasberg, Michael Bennet’s lifelong friend who had been serving as DPS’ Chief Operating Officer had already been made. It had to be Boasberg because unbeknownst to many, a very risky financial transaction, the now famous $750 million Pension Certificates of Participation (PCOPS), was deeply under water. Remember September 2008? It had to be Boasberg because he and Bennet along with their Wall Street bankers knew what trouble this deal was in, and while some of us on the Board asked how this deal was going, no real data was ever provided. Instead, we received platitudes like, “things are okay,” “perhaps not as good as we had hoped but it will be all right.” Meanwhile, DPS was paying upwards of 18% PER WEEK on its $750 million bet. There could be no other choice because any new person entering the DPS world would most likely have ordered a thorough examination of DPS finances and neither Tom nor Michael could have survived this revelation. Politics. After many executive sessions and much political pressure Tom Boasberg was unanimously selected. Obviously, I was a yes vote. It took over a year of investigating and prodding for the financial debacle to become uncovered and thus a rational explanation for Tom’s selection.  I know about that kind of pressure.


Fast forward to December 2018, almost exactly ten years later. After a torturous months’ long process where diverse communities across Denver spent hundreds of hours to determine what the most important characteristics DPS’ next superintendent should have, we have a somewhat similar situation: only one candidate being put forth. This time the candidate appears to be current Assistant Superintendent Susana Cordova. The similarity to 2009 should not be overlooked: this District is trying once again to elevate an insider who is deeply vested in keeping some current DPS condition from being fully examined and exposed. Ms. Cordova must be selected because much like Tom Boasberg in 2009 the District needs someone at the helm who will continue massaging the truth,  only this time the coverup involves educational outcomes, not financial malfeasance. My guess is at least four current board members – Anne Rowe, Barbara O’Brien, Happy Haynes, and Lisa Flores – are equally vested in Ms. Cordova because their legacies, too, are at stake. Even as the facts stare them in the face – the third largest achievement or opportunity gap in the nation, educational proficiencies of only 32% in math and 42% in reading , the highest teacher turnover in the Front Range, a Choice policy that is resegregating our schools – they cannot afford to admit 15 years of education reform have failed our students, particularly our students of color. I am going to go back to the proficiencies just cited because isn’t the first responsibility of any school district to educate its students? Even if you don’t believe high stakes testing tells the educational stories of our schools – and I do not – if you are going to live and die by the results of these tests, you had best have something good to show for 15 years of these education policies.


So you tell me.  Do educational results showing three out of 10 DPS students performing at grade level in math, and four out of ten in reading indicate a school District should continue down this path? These outcomes are the result of 15 years of education reform in Denver!  With Ms. Cordova as the head of DPS one can be assured the District will continue down this path, for she and the majority of the board of education are deeply vested in pretending these outcomes are just fine. They continue to tout growth figures as evidence of great success, while our students, particularly those of color, languish with few grade level skills.  No wonder folks who follow public education in Denver are so irate. The status quo must go.


In February 2016 I was asked to give a history of DPS education reform to the Boston Teachers Union. In that address I referenced a CABAL. I am going repeat this portion because it is so relevant to what is happening in Denver today. To those of you who have received my posts over the years this will be redundant. I repeat myself because this is very important today in Denver’ s political landscape.

The dictionary defines a Cabal as a group of plotters, a secret plot, a clique.  Education Reform across the nation is being run by a cabal.   This “education Reform” cabal is made up of some combination of the school board, the mayor, the governor, civic leaders and real estate developers, both Democrats and Republicans, (This is very important to note. Ed Reform is bi-partisan. (It is a shame it has taken a full front attack on public education to bring the R’s and D’s together.), national venture philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family Foundation to name the big three, national non-profits like Dem for Ed Reform, Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, Michelle Rhee’s Students First and all the lobbying and lobbyists money can buy. This cabal extends all the way up to the Secretary of Education and the President of the United States. Add to this powerful group local citizen’s oversight committees and local foundations and you have most members of the cabal.

In Denver the cabal ties are more than just casual connections: then superintendent Michael Bennet, went to private school with his successor current superintendent Tom Boasberg who grew up next door to Stand for Children founder Jonah Edelman. One of the first Board members of Stand was someone named Margaret Boasberg, sister of Tom Boasberg. The former chief of staff to Boasberg, Jen Walmer, is now head of Colorado DFER, the head of the citizens oversight group Van Schoales worked for ERN, the political arm of DFER . And former Board members and former politicians are parlaying their years of public service into various profitable ventures. These are definitely powerful people who have a lot of money. Oh, and by the way, it is always easier to be part of the in crowd (remember middle school?) than it is to actually research issues for yourself and come to your own critically thought through decisions. So “reformers” have gathered support from civic leaders, many of whom have superficial knowledge about public education but who trust and don’t really verify.

Many members of the cabal are products of a very different school system, a private one that prizes small classes, enriched curricula, up to date facilities. They had parents who exercised choice sending them out of the neighborhoods to private schools. I am convinced that is part of the reason CHOICE is desirable and non-controversial to them. That’s what they did. That’s what they are comfortable with. That is why the repeated cry to fix neighborhood schools, not close them, keeps falling on deaf ears. To them closing neighborhood schools is a totally objective decision and one that can be made without emotional ties.  Most of the cabal’s children attend schools where reforms are not practiced. So public education in the United States today embodies decisions being made for those children by folks who do not subject their own children to the portfolio strategy that has become education reform.

In Denver the cabal is made of representatives from all of the above-named entities. We don’t have a mayoral appointed board but you don’t need one when the cabal finds and funds people to run like a former lieutenant governor who just happens to be the head of a non-profit that trains principals for non-union schools (Barbara O’Brien), two former city council presidents one of whom is the state director for former superintendent (Rosemary Rodriguez), now Senator Michael Bennet, the other of whom has just been appointed to head Denver’s city parks and recreation department (Happy Haynes), a bond lawyer whose firm has garnered $3.5 million from the district over the last 10 year selling many kinds of bonds., including pension swaps (Mike Johnson). In 2016 the remaining three also had political ties to some part of the cabal.

In this current battle for DPS superintendent many cabal members have already thrown their support to Ms. Cordova including the current mayor and at least one former mayor.  It certainly would be better for Denver and the incoming superintendent to enter the position with unanimous approval. But given how this search has devolved, that probably will not happen. Susana Cordova has become a divisive figure in all of this, and repeating the 2009 history of putting forth only one inside candidate in the hope of keeping those skeletons hidden would not be good for DPS.  Would Ms. Cordova threaten to resign from DP altogether if at this point she is not put forward? Would that be so bad for Denver and its school District?  If the entire process were to be reopened, would she consider reapplying?  Would she ever be acceptable to communities who have demanded a different kind of superintendent and a different direction for the District?

The Board of Education is now scheduled to announce the superintendent finalist(s) on Friday, November 30. These extra days of “deliberation” and “executive sessions” will undoubtedly bring enormous pressure on wavering board members to conform to the majority’s wishes. Is trying to keep those skeletons under cover worth the divisions will most likely ensue from putting only this one candidate forward? Will Board members who are hesitant about her leadership be able to withstand the pressure? I know how hard that will be. Remember 2009.

Update: Early this evening, November 29, the seven member board passed a resolution by a vote of 5-2 to move the sole remaining candidate forward in the superintendent search.  Susana Cordova will now have meetings across the city to share her vision.  The two dissenting votes came from Dr. Carrie Olson and Jennifer Bacon.