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DPS board supports R2T in split vote

Denver school board members voted 5-2 Monday to support the state’s Race to the Top application, with dissenters Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida arguing for more time for community input.

Colorado’s effort to win a piece of the highly competitive $4.3 billion federal grant would likely benefit Denver Public Schools, with its high poverty rate and struggling schools, more than any of the state’s other 177 school districts.

DPS’ estimated take ranges from $20 million to $40 million if the state’s application is successful.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, whose efforts in the past year to win the grant have won national attention, spoke Dec. 14 to DPS board members, encouraging them to sign up for participation. The state gains points if more districts say they’ll consider being part of its proposed reforms.

But board members, at the suggestion of Jimenez, opted to wait to allow time for community input. No one spoke on the topic at a public hearing later that week.

Monday, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said state officials were anxious for a decision.

The application deadline is Jan. 19. Because of the coming holiday weekend, however, state officials are hoping to wrap up their final application on Friday.

“I think there is a very strong desire on the part of the state that we lead,” Boasberg said, “because of the view that other people are looking at us and other people are following our lead.”

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, signed the state’s requested “memorandum of understanding” or MOU last week. Federal officials aren’t requiring teachers’ unions to participate but they are encouraging it.

“We want to be part of the conversation,” Roman said. “There are a lot of important issues in the application and we want to be a part of those conversations.”

DPS Board President Nate Easley said he felt comfortable voting Monday because of the lengthy state process led by O’Brien, which included public meetings, and because signing the MOU does not necessarily mandate a district participate in the Race to the Top reforms.

If Colorado’s application is successful, which will be announced in April, the participating districts have 90 days to negotiate a “scope of work” with the state. That will detail each district’s participation.

If the district and state can’t agree, the district can opt out.

Jimenez said he preferred the board wait to vote until its Wednesday meeting, after a scheduled public comment session.

Easley said the board’s actions, including hearing O’Brien’s presentation and wanting to gather input, were conducted in public meetings.

“With all due respect, that’s not good enough,” Merida said. “We have to actually tell people we’re inviting comment.”

Merida said she also was concerned about the turnaround strategies favored by federal officials for schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, strategies which include closure and replacing a school’s staff.

“I would like assurances that the turnaround strategy is not the name of the game going forward,” she said.

Board member Theresa Pena said she didn’t hear any issues in O’Brien’s presentation that would cause concern. She also said the board had previously acted in support of legislation – last year’s tuition equity bill, for example – when there was a sense of urgency.

“We’re talking about millions of dollars that would be coming into this state,” Pena said.

Board member Jeanne Kaplan, who often argues for more public engagement, said she was willing to go forward with voting.

“We need community input,” she said. “But I think it’s an important enough resolution that I’m OK voting for it.”

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, told board members that her group is writing a letter in support of the state’s Race to the Top application.

“In a local-control state, the state cannot tell you what to do,” Urschel said, referring to the fact that local school boards have control over many education issues. “But the opt-out is a provision that many districts are comfortable with.”

Urschel and Jim Weigel, a former school board member in the Adams Five-Star School District, attended Monday’s DPS work session to help board members decide how they want to govern.

“You aren’t elected to be the superintendent,” was the headline on one lesson distinguishing board governance from district management.

Another lesson: “You campaign as an individual – but you govern as a group.”

The session contained echoes of last month’s board workshop at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, when a therapist asked board members to play games to build trust.

At one point on Monday, board members were asked to lie on the floor as part of an exercise.

Weigel, who’s worked “intensely” with about 40 school boards, said the only thing unusual about the Denver board as it adjusts to accommodate new members is the media scrutiny.

“I don’t think there’s any board that can’t be helped,” he said.

Click here to see previous Ed News stories about Race to the Top and other stimulus money.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.