On November 5, 2019 Denver voters gave education reform an “F” which was reflected by the election of three new board members, none of whom was supported by the usual suspects in Denver’s education reform landscape: DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), SFER (Students for Education Reform), Stand for Children or as I recently heard referred to as STOMP ON CHILDREN. The three winners – Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick, joined two other non-reform members to make what should have been an easy 5-2 majority. Taking action to undo the District’s business model of education reform should have been a gimme. It is now four months later, and while there are members who want to see the District go in a new direction, the sense of urgency is definitely not there. The new majority appears to be unwilling or stymied as how best to make essential change and how best to honor the voters’ desires. I have attended various DPS events these past few weeks, and I was struck by how easily it could have been 2009 or 2013 or 2017. Many of the same people are in charge, most of the same policies are being pursued, the same policy governance baloney is being pushed. Education reform continues to dominate the conversation and decision making. The window of opportunity for this board to act is closing rapidly and before we know it, a new election cycle will be upon us. Denver Board of Education – it is incumbent upon you to act now. If you continue to drag your feet, we will lose another generation to education reform and its portfolio model. Some possibilities as how to proceed and achieve change quickly follow:
- The Board must begin a search for a new superintendent. Superintendent Susana Cordova and all of her senior team must be replaced. For a short while I believed Ms. Cordova could stay without her current senior staff, but it has become apparent that that would be an unworkable situation. All who are so deeply vested in the education reform direction the District has followed need to be replaced by qualified leaders who are not afraid to admit the failures of the last 15 years and who are willing to develop a bold, new direction for the District. The current leadership in DPS is wedded too heavily to the past (some might call it the status quo). Denverites want change and have said so clearly in the past two elections. The only way for that to happen is for a complete change in top leadership. In a recent post written specifically for Loving Community Schools Newsletter, The CURE, education historian and hero of the transformers’ movement Diane Ravitch said this:
The new Denver school board should use this unique opportunity to repute the failed “reforms” of the past decade. They have not closed achievement gaps; they have not improved the opportunities of all children. They have failed.
It is time for the school board to find new leadership willing to strike out in a new direction. That means leaders who do not define schooling by deeply flawed standardized tests and who understand that a great public education system benefits all children, not just a few.
- The Board must take back power it has ceded to the superintendent. It must
- decide what board meeting agendas should look like.
- direct the superintendent to direct the staff to follow up on Board Directors’ subjects of interest.
- consider returning to two public board meetings per month. That used to be the norm until the Bennet/Boasberg regimes. The reduction in meetings has resulted in less transparency and fewer meaningful public discussions.
- revise policies DJA and DJA-R so the threshold for Board approved purchases is lowered from the current $1 million.
- reduce the number and length of PowerPoint presentations. One thing DPS has improved over the past 15 years is its PowerPoint presentations. They are now very colorful, very long, and very, very obtuse. No more “Death by PowerPoint.”
- The Board must change the budget and educational priorities from one based on reform-oriented tenets and expenditures to one that reflects priorities voted for in the elections of 2017 and 2019.
- SPF – Accountability based on data, data, data which is based on testing, testing, testing. Why is the District continuing to pursue and spend taxpayer money on a flawed, racist, punitive, inequitable accountability system upon which most of its other educational decisions are based? While the SPF is being “re-imagined” and the possibility of using the state system is being considered, few board members seem willing to tackle real change which could result in a wholly different accountability system. Why is the Board not directing the staff to develop an entirely new accountability system focused on “school stories,” for example, based on things other than test scores? Why is the Board unwilling to make real change but instead seems satisfied to just nibble at the edges?
- Choice – A complicated, expensive to operate, stressful system where the number of “choices” has increased from five schools to twelve schools per student. Who could really be satisfied with a number past even five? Is this just another way for DPS to pretend a reform is working by saying “XX% got one of their top choices. Look. It’s working!” And why is the Board majority allowing the District to continue to ignore focusing on most family’s first Choice, their neighborhood schools? What are the costs of Choice from implementation to transportation and everything in between? And how could that money not be better spent in the classroom?
- Charter Schools – these “publicly funded, privately managed ‘public’ schools” seem to have it both ways; they are funded with taxpayer dollars, yet they are not overseen by our duly elected officials. The Board must work with the legislature to bring more transparency, oversight and accountability to charter schools in general. (See next section). Just last week in a 2 hour, 27 page PowerPoint presentation, DPS had a Focus on Achievement study session devoted to “Positive Culture Change for Educators of Color.” None of the data reflected Charter School recruitment, hiring, demographics, retention, turnover. Nothing. The head of Human Resources actually said, “We do not include charters in this data. Charters are not required to provide their employee data or demographic data to the District.” (minute 39) WHAAAT?? Sixty out of 200 schools are charters. 20%. No accountability to the Board. As for bond and mill levy monies? Same thing. DPS is touted for sharing these funds with its charters, yet once again there is no oversight and accountability for the charters.
- Bonuses – Awarding bonuses is one of those business practices that works better in the private sector than the public sector. As DPS has plowed forward with all things reform, bonuses have become a huge part of its model. Teachers earn bonuses based on criteria established in the 2019 strike settlement. The dollar amount per year starts at $750 and can go as high $6000 a year. Administrators earn bonuses based on criteria established by, one assumes, by the superintendent. Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) has engaged a financial analytics consultant to analyze salary and expenditure trends within the DPS budget. Detailed compensation data for the fiscal years ending 2014 – 2019 was provided by DPS to INC through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
- From this data, DPS is showing that the largest beneficiaries of Bonus Compensation were those in the “Administrator” job classification. For the six-year period, Administrators received 82% ($3.8 million) of the total bonuses paid ($4.6 million). What’s more, the 20 highest bonused Administrators received 33%, or $1.4 million of the overall $4.6 million. Let that sink in – $1.4 million paid from 2014-2019 went to 20 Administrators. In a District strapped for cash. In a District that is asking teachers to make up a budgetary shortfall by increasing their pension contributions.
- Pension contributions – The District must pay its moral and ethical obligations. Normal costs. Stop defunding the pension. Stop trying to sell this defunding to the public, and especially your employees, as good financial policy. The fact is the DPS silo in PERA has lost over 20% of its 100% funded status (UAAL) since 2008 and continues to pay exorbitant interest, financial, legal fees (close to $1 billion and counting), money that could have been put into the pension. The Board majority, all of whom were elected with the help of the teachers’ union, should not support defunding their pension.
- Alternative Licensing Companies – The amount of money being spent on outside professional development for the alternative licensing of administrators, specifically at RELAY “Graduate School of Education” is appalling ($5 million over the past 6 years). Even more important than the money is the RELAY program itself. Its rigidity and lack of humaneness has increased the stress levels of many school leaders and is in part the reason for the high principal turnover. 50% in five years. Adding insult to injury, almost 20% of the several hundred expensively RELAY trained people have already left the District. Talk about waste of taxpayer dollars! A seemingly less harsh program is one out of the University of Virginia Darden School of Education, but it too is costing taxpayers a lot of money. $1.2 million over the past 3 years. The Board must re-examine these programs and their outcomes.
- The Board must re-establish control of the District’s legislative agenda. How has the Board majority allowed the current lobbyist to keep her job with the District when 1) several Board members did not know of her existence until recently, meaning, she did not consult with them as to what legislation they wish to support nor did she ask what legislation they themselves might wish to get drafted; 2) she currently lobbies for Colorado’s League of Charter Schools; 3) she was once the Colorado executive director of the quintessential reform organization Stand for Children? How has this majority allowed the reform agenda to continue to be pushed when the voters have clearly asked them to stop this plan? Here are two pieces legislation being pursued by the District that would appear to be contrary to voters’ and seemingly the Board majority’s wishes:
- A bill soon to be introduced which would to put some restrictions on charter schools – DPS has lobbied against; voters and majority should be for it.
- A bill to decrease the District’s pension contributions once again (defunding a pension plan is never a good idea) as they ask the employees themselves to increase their contributions. The bill is being sold as a raise for teachers but for our “publicly funded, privately managed “charter schools it could be a windfall, for they could use the extra money as they wished. Remember “publicly funded, privately managed” means no elected BoE oversight. As of today this bill has not been officially introduced, and given the current economic trends let’s hope the District has a change of heart. Not only does DPS support this bill but the Deputy Superintendent of Operations actually wrote most of it. What else do you need to know? DPS for; voters and Board majority should be against.
I have not addressed what is one of the most troubling issues in the DPS world, and that is what is going on with our students and employees of color. I am not an expert on this subject, but my friend Hasira “Soul” Ashemu is. He is the co-founder of Our Voice Our Schools and has written extensively on this subject. His posts will leave you wondering why the Board is not taking swift action.
The above list is by no means complete. Other reform policies such as Innovation Schools, Co-Locations, Testing, Student Based Budgeting need attention as well. The Board majority must show the people who supported them they are paying attention to their mandate, and they are acting on it. Many people have worked for far too many years, on far too many elections to be satisfied with the current Board’s lack of action and lack of urgency. Word on the street is there are some members pushing for policy change but they are hitting a brick wall when it comes to making substantive changes. If true, we must find a way to support these agents of change. If nothing is done quickly, the opportunity to make big changes will slip right through our fingers. We can easily lose the majority in the next election because of the Board’s lack of progress in reversing the current status quo that is education reform. We have worked too hard to allow that to happen. We have won the last two elections. We need to reap the fruit of our hard work now. Talk to your Board members. Write to them.