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Relations deteriorate on DPS board

Denver Public Schools administration building at 900 Grant St.
Denver Public Schools administration building at 900 Grant St.

Tense relations between Denver Public Schools board members deteriorated Monday when the board president declined to hear an outsider’s view on a 2008 pension refinancing transaction.

President Nate Easley’s decision, while in keeping with tradition that public comment isn’t heard at work sessions, was vigorously criticized by three board members who are questioning the district stance that the transaction is saving DPS millions of dollars.

At times, the debate sounded like a family squabble, complete with members interrupting one another and talking over each other as they argued. Read the background here.

“Are you going to take over the meeting?” Easley asked board member Andrea Merida at one point, followed a few minutes later by, “Are you going to continue to interrupt people?”

Merida, shaking her head in dismay, said, “I’m tired of the spin” and argued that John MacPherson, the former interim executive director of the DPS Retirement System, be allowed to speak.

“This has a serious impact on whether … we’re going to be able to do right by our kids and do right by our teachers and retirees,” she said of the pension dispute. “This gentleman is very well respected and he has a lot of knowledge on this issue and I think we need to hear him out.”

Easley said MacPherson should speak during Thursday’s scheduled public comment session.

“This work session is a meeting of elected officials with the district about specific district issues and not a time for public comment,” he said.

The quarreling over the pension transaction capped a four-hour meeting dominated by milder disagreements over issues as varied as what personnel information board members should have access to and whether the board should consider challenging the state Innovation Schools Act.

In addition, board vice president Arturo Jimenez introduced a resolution limiting the co-location of schools in northwest Denver for three years while board member Theresa Peña sought support for Senate Bill 191, state Sen. Mike Johnston’s measure linking student growth to teacher and principal evaluations.

Both resolutions are likely to be controversial. Three board members – Merida, Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan – quickly said they will not support Peña’s proposal.

“Parts of the bill are very appealing but I’m really not comfortable voting on something that’s not in its final form,” Kaplan said.

The bill, which is just beginning to work its way through the General Assembly, has won the unanimous support of the State Board of Education and various business and community groups. It is fiercely opposed by the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union.

Jimenez said he was uncomfortable with the bill because it ties student achievement to decisions about teachers and “there has been no research really to tie the two things together.”

Peña’s resolution combines Senate Bill 191 with her earlier motion in support of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s plan to limit the placement of veteran teachers unable to secure jobs in struggling high-poverty schools.

The bill would require mutual consent in hiring – meaning a teacher and principal agree the teacher is a good fit for the school. Current state law guarantees jobs for teachers with more than three years of experience. In DPS, that’s resulted in veteran teachers being placed in schools where neither they nor the principals particularly want them to be.

Board members are expected to vote Thursday on the resolution. Read it here.

Jimenez’ resolution to limit co-location for at least three years is scheduled for discussion Thursday, with a vote likely in May.

The proposal calls for DPS to suspend its solicitation for new schools in northwest Denver “until a comprehensive analysis of neighborhood school feeder patterns is completed and a community/parent driven planning process is implemented.”

Jimenez said he is targeting the district he represents on the board because most of his constituents want to focus on improving neighborhood schools rather than bringing in new programs. See District 5 map here.

“At this point, we are saturated in northwest Denver at every level in every grade,” he said.

State law requires DPS to consider charter school applications and the resolution would not prevent that, he pointed out. Nor can it stop a charter from securing its own building in the area and gaining approval to move in.

What he is hoping to prevent, Jimenez said, is the district offering up space in an existing school to a new program.

“I’ve worded this as a resolution and not as a policy so that gives us maximum flexibility,” he said. “But I would hope we wouldn’t solicit for co-location for new schools in northwest Denver.”

Peña questioned whether the resolution would stop DPS’ efforts to turn around low-performing schools in that part of the city. Jimenez said no but that he wanted a three-year stop to give various reforms already underway time to grow.

The resolution is an amendment of an earlier proposal by Jimenez. Read the latest version here.

Challenging the state’s Innovation Schools Act emerged as a possibility after board members heard their second innovation proposal in as many months.

Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver is seeking the freedom from district and union rules and regulations allowed by the state law, and the new Denver Green School made a similar request in March.

Some board members want to set criteria around which schools can receive the special status and when they can apply for it.

If the board doesn’t set guidelines, “we will never actually quantify what a school community that is ready for innovation and can sustain a long-term innovation plan … actually looks like,” Merida said. “If that is the case, any school that feels like having innovation or any principal that feels like circumventing the collective bargaining agreement could just go ahead and choose innovation status.”

John Kechriotis, DPS’ legal counsel, said the law sets the conditions for granting innovation status and he urged the board not to add their own criteria.

“If the board sets its own criteria, it could open the district to a lawsuit,” he said.

Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez said they believe the board is within its rights to impose some guidelines. For example, Jimenez said he would like to see principals proposing innovation status have successful track records of at least five years.

But board member Bruce Hoyt likened the innovation law to the state charter statutes, which set out specific grounds for which a board can withhold approval.

“To the extent we have concerns, we have to tie it back to the statute and say, this is the area where we don’t think it means the meaning and intent of the statute,” he said.

The law also was raised early in the evening when Merida asked for school-by-school results of teacher surveys about their principals. Boasberg said the results, because they’re used in evaluating principals, are personnel records not available to the board.

Easley said he believes the superintendent’s contract calls for Boasberg to deal with personnel matters. Hoyt said he worried board members were in danger of micro-managing if they scrutinize such school-by-school data.

“I would just like to get a legal opinion,” Jimenez said. “I was under the impression as a board member I had access to any and all records of the district. If that’s not the case, can we just have legal get back to us on what those boundaries are?”

But the bigger fireworks came later, when some board members wanted to hear MacPherson give his take on the pension refinancing.

Kaplan, who has called for greater public dialogue on the $750 million deal, said MacPherson has proven “invaluable” in helping her understand the transaction.

Jimenez seconded her request.

“I would really encourage you to air on the side of transparency,” he told Easley, “…. so that the perception of the public isn’t that we’re unwilling to deal with the issue or, even worse, not wanting to deal with the issue.”

But Easley’s decision was backed by other board members. Hoyt said he preferred having materials from MacPherson in advance, before a public meeting, so he could ask questions.

“I do care about the decorum of this being a board work session,” he said. “I don’t think this is the right time.”

Boasberg, who has repeatedly denied assertions that the deal is costing DPS up to $100 million a year, launched into another explanation of the transaction.

“Let’s have a serious discussion, right?” he said, then referring to various claims that the pension dispute is fueled by the politics of a U.S. Senate race. “Let’s not turn this into a political game, a game of stunts.”

“Where’s the stunt?” called out audience member Nicolas Weiser, part of the working group advising Kaplan and the others on the issue.

“Yeah, where’s the stunt?” Kaplan asked.

Board member Mary Seawell tried to mediate. She asked Boasberg to stop talking, assuring him that she believed what he was saying but pointing out that no one was taking it in.

“Logic isn’t prevailing with any of us right at the moment,” she told him before turning to the others. “We have an idea of having a separate meeting and I want to attend that meeting … I would like to schedule something and have this discussion.”

Board members began thumbing through calendars but couldn’t quickly settle on a date and time. They asked the board’s secretary to contact them later to finalize a meeting.

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

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