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New schools top lengthy DPS board session

Denver school board members worked for six hours Monday in a marathon session that touched on new schools, innovation schools and limiting co-locations in northwest Denver for one year only.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg is recommending approval of three new schools to open in fall 2011, all in northeast Denver, and the denial of five other new school applications. Three more new school applicants withdrew from consideration.

The three schools recommended for approval are University Prep School, an elementary charter in near northeast Denver; SOAR elementary charter in far northeast Denver; and a second Denver Center for International Studies, a district-run performance school in far northeast Denver.

See a complete list of the 11 applicants here.

Board members will vote June 30 on the eight remaining applications. While Boasberg can recommend approval or denial, the board has the final say.

Much of their talk Monday focused on replicating the popular Denver Center for International Studies or DCIS, which was originally located at West High School and then moved to the former Baker Middle School campus near downtown.

The second DCIS is proposed as a K-12 campus. Boasberg said it’s expected the school would be a neighborhood school with attendance boundaries rather than a magnet program taking students from across the city.

But he also said that’s open to debate and may depend on where the second DCIS is housed. Board members won’t decide on the actual locations for new schools, rather than broad geographic areas, until November.

A community process in northwest Denver

Thursday, the board will be asked to vote on a resolution limiting new schools in northwest Denver during 2011-12 so community members can weigh in on aligning offerings from preschool through graduation.

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the area, said the plan is not intended to stop the turnaround of low-performing schools there or halt other reforms. A previous version of the resolution sparked concerns that it was a “moratorium” on changes in that part of the city.

“The most important thing about this resolution is supporting the community engagement of northwest Denver,” Jimenez said. “And as part of that engagement, we’re asking that schools not ask for extra facilities to come into … northwest Denver for one school year.”

The new resolution carefully notes that DPS “reaffirms” its commitments to the state’s charter school laws, the state Innovation Schools Act and school turnaround strategies.

It would require a study of what’s offered in the area and a “community-driven committee” to work with the school board “to develop a preschool through post-secondary alignment of neighborhood schools.”

Jimenez said a collection of individuals and organizations already has been working on changes at North High School and he wants that group to fill the committee role. He’ll introduce members on Thursday.

Northwest Denver was the site of vehement opposition from some community members to reforms proposed last year by Boasberg – and approved 4-3 by the board in November 2009.

Jimenez’s resolution calls for a community engagement process similar to what’s underway in far northeast Denver.

“This is just a resolution so it has maximum flexibility,” he said. “If we find evidence that we need to do something with a school during this time period, we’re able to get out of it if there was an extenuating circumstance.”

Innovation principals cite progress in budgeting

Several principals at schools granted autonomy under the state’s Innovation Schools Act told board members on Monday that their flexibility with budget dollars is improving.

Last month, three innovation school principals obtained an opinion from a Denver law firm that the district was in violation of the state law, which is intended to give schools freedom from district and union rules and regulations.

“I think we’ve made progress,” said one of the three, Julie Murgel, principal of the Cole Arts & Science Academy. “It’s an evolution.”

Boasberg acknowledged DPS had been “unacceptably slow” in granting the schools greater control over their budget dollars.

But he also said the 2008 law did not anticipate issues such as federal grant and stimulus dollars. He said state officials, after consulting with federal authorities, told DPS those dollars could not be divided into per-pupil bundles and doled out to the innovation schools.

In addition, discussion about the law focused on waivers from teachers’ union rules. But innovation schools also must gain waivers from members of other unions – secretarial, custodial – if they want control over those services as well.

For example, Murgel said, she started out expecting greater flexibility with up to $670,000 of her budget. That figure was cut to $360,000 when federal funds were removed. Of that, $285,000 pays for facility and janitorial services – and she needs waivers from seven other DPS unions to access it.

That leaves $70,000 – of which she opted to take control of $57,000 in professional development. She plans to pay for teachers to return early this summer to prepare for the start of the next school year.

“I still think we have a lot of work to do,” Murgel said of the innovation schools’ budgeting control.

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

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