It was almost a kumbaya moment. And then it wasn’t.
Denver school board members unanimously approved resolutions on two hot-button issues on Thursday, joining forces to support comprehensive sexual education and to put a temporary halt on additional seats in northwest Denver schools.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in Denver County about whether or not this board can get along. I present to you this collaborative effort,” board member Andrea Merida told the audience after those votes. “Denver, if you’re worried about us not being able to get along, please give us a chance.”
But a few minutes later, board members split again over approval of next year’s $1.2 billion budget.
They voted 3-3 – board member Theresa Peña is out of the country – on a motion to approve the financial plan. With no majority vote, it failed. By law, the budget must be approved by June 30.
The votes split along familiar lines, with Merida, Jeanne Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez opposed and Nate Easley, Bruce Hoyt and Mary Seawell in favor. Peña tends to vote with the latter three.
At issue is a months-long debate over the district’s funding of its retirement obligations. Kaplan continues to raise questions about a 2008 pension refinancing and its impact on DPS’ ability to make good on its promises to retirees.
She sought to table the budget vote until after the state Public Employees Retirement Association released a report today. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg countered the report had no impact on the district’s budget.
And the debate pinged back and forth from there.
Later, Easley, the board’s president, predicted Peña’s return for a June 30 meeting would bring approval.
“Board members have every right to question the superintendent, especially when it comes to money,” he said. “But I think there are four of us who think we’ve done our due diligence and three of us who feel we haven’t … We’ll pass the budget.”
Saying yes to sex ed
Before the money debate, there was unanimous agreement about sex.
Jimenez, the board’s vice president, introduced a resolution expected to lay the groundwork for changes in the district’s sexual education programs – though it means no big changes on its own.
“This is just the beginning,” Jimenez said. “We are going to talk about other issues … we are going to move forward with education.”
The resolution recognizes “the need to continue and expand efforts to ensure that all young people have access to science-based, comprehensive, medically accurate, culturally relevant and age-appropriate sexuality education, information and resources …”
It dovetails with other recent efforts, including the state’s adoption of academic standards in physical education and health, which say graduates should know how to “apply knowledge and skills necessary to make personal decisions that promote healthy relationships and sexual and reproductive health.”
Nearly a dozen speakers on Thursday outlined the need to improve sex ed in DPS. No one spoke against the resolution.
Jose Juan Cruz, a senior at Bruce Randolph School, said sex ed consisted of a fifth-grade class. He wasn’t thinking about sex then, he said, urging information begin instead in grade 7 and continue through grade 12.
“What about those who do not choose abstinence?” he asked. “What knowledge is given to them? From whom?”
DPS dad Jessie Ulibarri said his son just completed the district’s fifth-grade sex ed curriculum and he was “extremely disappointed and shocked at the outdated and incomplete information.”
As a former sex educator himself, he said he had no trouble filling in the gaps for his son. But he wondered about the comfort level of other parents.
“It is terrifying to me that for many students in the school, this is the only information they will ever receive,” he said, describing a curriculum that focused on anatomy and left out safe sex practices.
He also said that, as a gay parent, he worried about the message an emphasis on one sexual lifestyle conveyed to his son.
Several speakers, including Dr. Eliza Buyers, a Denver obstetrician and gynecologist, talked about numbers:
- In Colorado, 50 to 100 girls ages 12 to 14 give birth every year.
- In Denver, nearly 1,100 school-aged girls gave birth in 2009 – more than the number of students enrolled at North High School.
- In DPS, more than 1 in 4 ninth-graders report they have engaged in sexual intercourse and more than 60 percent of 11th-graders say they have done so.
“I don’t think there is a health issue that more profoundly affects the performance, the attendance and the graduation rate of teens, particularly teen girls,” Buyers said.
Community engagement in northwest Denver
The speakers on Thursday’s other issue – a temporary stop to new seats in the city’s northwest – were fewer in number but more disparate in their views.
Two spoke in favor of the short-term halt while three spoke against it, largely concerned that a few community activists would end up calling the shots.
“This is a very open process,” said Jimenez, who represents the area, in seeking to allay those fears. “Everyone will be included.”
The final version of his resolution, which went through several iterations, calls for the creation of a community group to work on aligning educational offerings from preschool through post-secondary.
While that work is being done, the resolution says, the district will not add additional seats in 2011-12.
“It’s very important we shore up the schools we have before we throw others into the mix,” Jimenez said.
Last fall, DPS leaders and some members of the northwest Denver community engaged in bitter debate over the district’s plans to reform its lowest-performing middle school, Lake, and bring in a high-performing charter.
Board members ultimately voted 4-3 to go ahead with the reforms but the fight highlighted divisions in the community – charter vs. non-charter, pro-DPS and anti-DPS. Jimenez voted against the reforms and some are concerned he will lead an anti-charter, anti-reform community effort.
Sam Barnes, a parent at the Cesar Chavez Academy charter in the area, said a community group has been meeting “in secrecy.”
“Don’t take away the voices that we have,” he said in asking board members to veto the resolution. “A lot of people who represent the community haven’t heard anything about it.”
But Deborah Ortega, a former Denver city councilwoman who opposed the Lake changes, said the plan is “desperately needed” so the community can gauge the long-term impact of reforms there.
“This will allow us to look at the big picture,” she said.
Seawell, the at-large board member who worked with Jimenez on the resolution, also stressed that the makeup of the community group has not been decided.
“Effective reform only happens with the support of families committed to public schools,” she said. “This resolution is designed to give northwest Denver that voice.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.