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Voices: Why I'm against Denver's school bond

Editor’s note: The author of this commentary mistakenly attributes a quote to the report “True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools.” The quote actually appeared in an EdNews story in February 2012, three months before the True North report was published. We appreciate our readers pointing out this factual error.

Denver dad Michael Kiley says he will not support the district’s $466 million bond at the polls in November because he doesn’t trust Denver Public Schools administrators.

I think most Denverites want the best for our children and the best for our schools. We understand the stark reality that Colorado lags far behind most states in funding our schools.

So why would so many Denverites oppose the 3B bond to provide funds to Denver Public Schools for facilities and infrastructure? While we may be happy with our children’s teachers and school leaders, many of us have lost faith in the administration of Denver Public Schools.

The DPS administration has many critics. A+ Denver, a local citizens-based education organization, stated in its report True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools in May 2012 that the Denver Plan, DPS’ strategic plan, is in urgent need of substantial revision.

The report states that the district:

“…needs to have a strategic plan and a strategic vision for how it wants to improve the academic performance of the children in DPS. If the Denver Plan is intended to be that strategic plan (then) it needs to be significantly changed and improved. There are some things that are good, but it is not the kind of strategic plan that any major organization would use to move itself forward and to challenge some very difficult issues.”

Unfortunately, Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s administration has led a school district that is leaving more and more children behind. Boasberg recently touted:

“The number of DPS schools that are meeting or exceeding standards on the SPF (School Performance Framework) continues to rise, with 10 more schools rated this year as Distinguished (Blue) or Meets Expectations (Green).”

But an analysis of 2012 SPF data expands upon those carefully selected results. An opinion piece published in EdNews Colorado, Voices: Watch the spin with Denver’s school ratings, highlights other findings:

“DPS essentially doubled the number of schools in the lowest category… there are 2,065 more students in these lowest category red schools now than a year ago. In fact, there are over 3,700 more students in schools in the worst two categories, and 235 fewer students in schools in the best category.”

Membership on CPAC committee raises more questions

The process by which planned bond projects were selected did little to gain the trust of Denverites. Some 74 members of the community were appointed by Boasberg to form the Community Planning Advisory Committee (CPAC). Only nine CPAC members were listed with “parent” as their primary affiliation. The public could speak at the start of CPAC meetings, but there was no dialogue allowed between speakers and CPAC members. The DPS administration says that DPS teachers and principals gave input early in the process, but no teachers, school principals or DCTA representatives were included on the CPAC.

The result, I believe, was that bond projects were selected more by the influence of the school neighborhood than by their objective importance. Some 53 percent of bond funds will go to non-traditional schools, but only 21 percent of DPS students attended non-traditional – or magnet, charter or alternative – schools in 2012, according to my analysis of the 2012 DPS bond. Our traditional schools have sweltering heat in the summer and serious over-enrollment, yet the DPS administration directs the majority of bond funds to non-traditional schools.

The prime example is the proposed Stapleton/Northfield High School at a cost of $38.5 million. Nearby Manual High School (four miles west toward downtown) and George Washington (five miles south towards the Denver Tech Center) have a combined 1,500 open seats, and Smiley Middle School (two miles west towards downtown) has 381 open seats. The planned location of the new school at E. 56th Avenue and Havana Street is four miles from Stapleton (all distances per Google Maps).

Most troubling is the disclaimer on the DPS administration documentation on the bond:

“Please note that all allocations for 2012 funding are preliminary and may be subject to change.”

In effect, DPS is asking taxpayers for a $466 million blank check.

The DPS administration has a history of poor financial decisions. As the New York Times documented in Aug. 5, 2010, in Exotic Deals Put Denver Schools Deeper in Debt, Boasberg’s mentor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. senator, pushed for a complex financial transaction to pay pension obligations. The article stated:

“Since it (DPS Administration) struck the deal, the school system has paid $115 million in interest and other fees, at least $25 million more than it originally anticipated.”

That $25 million could cover the cost of two brand-new elementary schools.

Opponents of 3B want the opportunity to make critical changes to the bond and put it back on the ballot next year. Our economic recovery is underway but not yet complete, so it is important that we only borrow money for the most critical projects right now. A bond raises property taxes and is in effect a flat tax that asks those with the least income to sacrifice the most.

We can have a better bond next year, so let’s vote against 3B.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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