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Expected controversies fizzle at DPS meeting

More than a dozen speakers urged Denver Public Schools board members on Thursday to vote down a resolution limiting new schools, only to have the resolution’s author say that wasn’t his intention at all.

School board member Arturo Jimenez introduced the resolution titled “Moratorium on Call for Quality Schools,” which directed the district to, among other things, “suspend the Request for Proposals process for new schools for at least one year.”

The idea that DPS might halt the approval of new schools was enough to prompt the Colorado League of Charter Schools and seven other groups to write a letter to board members condemning the possibility.

It prompted the Denver Post to weigh in as opposed in an editorial in Thursday’s newspaper.

And it brought out parent after parent, who asked board members to give them more choice, not less.

“We need more options, not fewer,” said Thad Jacobs, who has a third-grader at Florida Pitt Waller K-8 School in far northeast Denver.

“We want and demand high-quality schools in our neighborhood and we don’t care what their title is – whether it be charter or traditional.”

Jacobs was among a handful of far northeast Denver parents who spoke, followed by a group from the Cole Arts and Science Academy, followed by members of the advocacy group Stand for Children and then a dozen supporters of West Denver Prep and KIPP charter schools.

“My girls don’t have time to wait for the schools to get better, bit by bit,” Cynthia Davila, the mother of three CASA students, said through an interpreter.

But near meeting’s end, after board members had listened to public comment and opened discussion on the resolution, Jimenez said it was never intended to halt new schools.

“This doesn’t do anything to stop any charter schools from coming in nor does it discontinue any school that has been approved,” he said by telephone from Washington, D.C., where he is meeting with federal leaders as part of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ education task force.

In fact, “this is not a moratorium on any new schools in any way,” he said.

Rather, the intent is to stop the bureaucratic process of DPS’ annual call for new school applications, Jimenez said, which gobbles up time that board members could spend on improving existing schools.

State law requires the district consider charter school applications and innovation school applications, he pointed out, but it doesn’t require the district to issue a yearly RFP.

DPS has been issuing the annual calls since 2008 and has since approved more than a dozen new schools, most of them charter, through that process. See an update on the new schools here.

School board member Theresa Peña asked Jimenez about teacher-led schools and alternative schools, citing the RFP as the only process by which such schools can be approved.

“It doesn’t prevent us from engaging in any activities we have now … it just asks us to spend a proportionate amount of time on our neighborhood schools and feeder patterns,” Jimenez said.

“I recommend you read the resolution rather than jumping to conclusions,” he added.

Peña’s response: “If that’s all it is, I don’t think it’s clear.”

School board member Andrea Merida, who appeared in a 9News segment supporting the resolution earlier in the day, said “it is clear that there is some confusion.”

“What we’re trying to do here … is to step back, see what we have, fix what we need to fix and then, at that point, bring on new schools,” she said.

She also said that some groups appeared to be, intentionally or unintentionally, misreading the resolution as calling for the closure of schools.

“If you take five minutes to read what the resolution says, it says nothing of the sort,” Merida said, adding, “We need to get away from the charter school vs. everybody else rhetoric.”

Several board members said they agree the board needs to focus on its existing schools.

“I fully agree we need to give more emphasis to the traditional schools which most of our students attend,” said board President Nate Easley.

Jimenez thanked board members for the “wonderful” discussion, which he said was the point of his resolution.

“This resolution will change significantly in form between now and the next reading,” he added.

Board members are expected to vote on the resolution at their April 22 meeting.

In other DPS business on Thursday:

— Merida retracted a resolution that would have blocked Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s plan to limit the direct placement of unassigned veteran teachers in the district’s highest-poverty and lowest-performing schools.

Direct placements occur when a teacher with more than three years of experience is unable to find a job on his or her own so the district finds them a position – whether the teacher or the principal like it or not.

An Ed News analysis found that, in 2009-10, 79 percent of such teachers were placed in the highest-poverty schools.

Merida said she will be working with Pena, who had proposed an amendment to Merida’s resolution that supported Boasberg’s plan, to craft a joint solution.

“This has been distorted,” Merida said of her resolution, which she described as intending to force DPS to ensure quality teachers are in every classroom rather than focusing on the relatively few teachers who are direct placements.

In speaking to her constituents in southwest Denver, she said, “they support their teachers but everyone knows, at least in every school building, there’s a diamond that needs a little bit of polishing.”

A number of parents and principals supported Boasberg’s plan at last month’s board meeting, where Merida first announced her resolution.

— Boasberg held a press conference to announce three new programs in northwest Denver have enrolled twice as many sixth-graders for fall as are now enrolled at Lake Middle School.

This school year, 190 sixth-graders are enrolled at Lake and 380 incoming sixth-graders have signed up to attend one of the three new programs in the Lake attendance area, including a new Lake International Baccalaureate Academy and two West Denver Prep charter programs.

Of the 380, 119 have signed up to attend the Lake IB Academy and 261 are planning to enroll at the West Denver Preps. Another 68 fifth-graders in the area have not yet picked a school and DPS expects another 62 newcomers in the area over the next six months.

DPS’ reform strategy at Lake, the city’s lowest-performing middle school, generated fierce debate in the weeks preceding the school’s board 4-3 approval of the plan on Nov. 30.

Board members Merida and Jimenez, who had opposed the plan, worked with Lake IB supporters on recruitment. Jimenez recorded robo-calls urging parents to attend community meetings and supporters went door-to-door, as did those for West Denver Prep.

Both West Denver Prep and Lake IB supporters received grant dollars to aid their community outreach and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association assisted the Lake IB effort.

At Thursday’s press conference at Lake, parent Helen Garcia, who had tearfully opposed the reform, appeared to startle Boasberg when she offered thanks.

“I’m going to say this only one time, thank the Board of Education and the superintendent for stepping up and helping us … on behalf of all the parents here at Lake,” she said, drawing applause.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org.