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DPS board splits on Boasberg evaluation

In a split from protocol, the Denver school board Thursday effectively issued two starkly divergent evaluations of Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

What wasn’t surprising is that the board majority’s positive review of Boasberg’s work in the district passed 4-2 Thursday, with minority board members Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan dissenting. The third member of the board minority – Arturo Jimenez – did not attend the meeting.

“We made the decision as a board…to do the evaluation differently this year,” board President Mary Seawell said. “In years past we have tried to come to consensus and agreement.”

This year, the board could not reach consensus despite hours spent in several closed meetings. Neither side felt its perspective would be accurately reflected in a jointly prepared document. So Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez prepared their own report.

In it, they recommended a $5,264 pay boost for Boasberg based on their evaluation but no increase based on performance, while the majority voted to give him a $31,153 bonus, which could increase once additional data points are released in early 2013. Of that amount, $20,625 was based on subjective criteria and $10,528 was based on his performance.

Seawell said Boasberg once again planned to donate his bonus pay of $31,153 to the Denver Public Schools Foundation. Boasberg’s base salary is $222,011 and he deferred his regular salary increase this year that is spelled out in his contract, according to district staff.

“I look at his pay compared to most superintendents and I always feel he is definitely underpaid,” Seawell said.

The minority board members accused Boasberg and staff of failing to follow board policy on numerous occasions. They recommended that he not receive any performance-based compensation.

Seawell said the board majority believes “we have one of the best superintendents in the entire country.”

“We feel good, optimistic and hopeful about our schools,” she said. “We do not believe board policy is violated as minority has established.”

However, Merida – reading from the minority statement – pointed out that Boasberg has never been evaluated on his adherence to board policy. She added that the minority would “seek his termination” if the pattern of ignoring board policy continued.

What little goodwill witnessed Thursday related to the board’s upcoming work to revise the Denver Plan, a strategic document that guides board decisions. Board members acknowledged that their views vary on what metrics should be used to evaluate the district’s effectiveness. The board plans to embark on Denver Plan revisions in January.

“We spend an awful lot of time on different perspectives rather than focusing on values we share,” board member Anne Rowe said. “What I am encouraged by… is a commitment by all seven board members to embark on this work…. I think it will be honest, transparent and productive.”

For Seawell and other members of the board majority, district successes that should be factored into the superintendent’s evaluation include DPS’ continued enrollment growth, Boasberg’s ability to bring in grants and other external funds, passage of the bond and mill levy tax hikes in November and academic growth in certain parts of the city that have previously been home to failing schools, such as Far Northeast Denver.

“This says to many of us we are on the right track,” Seawell said.

Closing the achievement gap

Board member Happy Haynes echoed Seawell’s sentiments but acknowledged that the district still has a lot of work to do in terms of boosting the academic performance  for English Language Learners and students of color.

“The progress we’ve made isn’t as much as we want,” Haynes said, noting that she hoped the evaluation process would be different next year. “One thing I do believe is that we are all looking for the same outcomes.”

As he has before, board member Nate Easley said the 2-to-1 voter approval for the bond and mill levy at the polls last month shows that the citizens of Denver support the direction the district is headed under Boasberg.

He also cited Boasberg’s skills in finance, noting that  DPS is one of the few Colorado districts that hasn’t laid off teachers in recent years – despite budget cuts.

“We have not done drastic things in order to keep the lights on,” Easley said. “In large part this has to do with the superintendent and his finance team.”

Calendar changes

In other business, the board voted 5-1 in support of changes to next year’s academic calendar, which lumps teacher professional development days (days off for students and families) around weekends and holidays.

The most significant change next year is that students will have the entire Thanksgiving week off. Schedules at charter schools may vary.

Enrollment growth

District staff also reported on enrollment in DPS, which increased by 2,500 students this year over last, 800 in district schools and 1,700 in charters. The district now has 84,424 students and has added 11,000 students since 2007, representing growth of 15 percent.

“There was greater growth for ELL students,” DPS Planning Director Will Lee-Ashley said. “Obviously this is something to track to make sure we’re reacting to (this) and being proactive as well.”

Of the school-aged students living in the district, 82 percent attend Denver Public Schools in a figure known as the “capture rate.” The capture rate has increased only slightly from 81 percent in 2010. In 2000, the capture rate was about 75 percent.

Call for Quality Schools

DPS Chief of Innovation and Reform Alyssa Whitehead-Bust discussed changes in the district’s Call for Quality Schools, an annual invitation to educators interested in opening schools in the district to submit applications.

Since co-location of charters and district-run boundary schools has been such a hot-button issue, Whitehead-Bust said the district is making sure school applicants know there is a shortage of space in the district and is asking them to factor that into plans submitted.

Whitehead-Bust said the district is also developing plans to engage community more in the process leading up to the creation of new schools in areas where there is demand and enrollment growth, including tapping community input on school models or locations.

Merida, though, asked why the district is issuing an RFP for a job it used to do.

“Do we not open traditional schools anymore?” she said. “Why issue RFPs for schools we should be opening ourselves?”

Whitehead-Bust said district staff are also invited to present school ideas. Boasberg said it’s essential that the district tap the community’s expertise and not limit schools to only those proposed by district staff.

“It’s incredibly important to give people the opportunity to propose the type of school they’d like to run,” Boasberg said. “There is so much talent we need to tap into in this district.”

But Merida lamented what she sees as the loss of basic neighborhood schools.

“We don’t have traditional, plain vanilla schools anymore. They’re either ‘innovation’ or a charter school. If a person wants plain vanilla public education I guess you don’t get that choice.”

New building on Lincoln

The board voted to pursue a contract to acquire a vacant 13-story building at 1860 Lincoln St. in the heart of downtown and allow a new expeditionary elementary school to open there next fall.

The new building will house Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, Emily Griffith High School and Technical College and several DPS central administration offices. The district plans to put the district headquarters at 900 Grant St. on the market over the next 18 months.

The district withdrew a request from the city for certification of non-historic status for the Emily Griffith property on Welton, which could have sped up demolition of the current facility and accelerated the building’s sale but which angered Historic Denver.

The purchase and renovation of the 1860 Lincoln building is expected to cost $35.5 million. District staff have said that the real estate transaction will save the district between $5 and $15 million over the next five years through increased efficiencies.

An earlier version of this story had inaccurate base salary information for Superintendent Tom Boasberg.