Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg Friday accused three school board members of playing politics with the district’s English language learners by stalling approval of a plan to improve education of those students.
The continuing battle between Boasberg and the board minority that doesn’t support his reform agenda this time spilled out into the stately federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch.
The hearing before Matsch was to determine whether he would accept modifications made to a consent decree stemming from the desegregation lawsuit in the 1970s. The first consent decree was issued in 1984. Matsch has overseen it ever since. It was significantly modified in 1999 and is now facing another tune-up to reflect best practices for meeting the needs of English language learners, who now make up more than one third of the district’s student body.
The Congress of Hispanic Educators, an original plaintiff in the case, DPS and the U.S. Department of Justice have worked for two-and-a-half years to negotiate revisions to the document.
The revised plan clarifies how parents or guardians may choose services for their ELL students, provides a new approach to training teachers of the district’s roughly 36,000 ELL students, ensures that parents or guardians from different language groups receive translations of important school communications, sets processes for placement of ELL students in special education and improves DPS’s self-evaluation processes.
It also shifts the educational focus to a model where students receive transitional native language instruction in key subject areas while they simultaneously learn English. All three parties encouraged the judge to sign off on it.
Last-minute letter derails process
But a letter sent Thursday from DPS board members Andrea Merida, Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan caused Matsch to continue the hearing to April 15.
Boasberg described the modified consent decree as a “step forward for Denver’s English language learners.
“It is a shame to deny those kids the benefit of this … because of petty political differences,” Boasberg said after the proceedings.
In the letter, the three board members – two of whom are the board’s only Latino members – complained that they were not given ample opportunity to fully discuss and digest the contents of the revised decree.
Learning of the letter, Robert Rice, attorney for the Congress of Hispanic Educators, said he was “dismayed, perplexed, sandbagged.”
“We have no idea what’s going on between this group of board members and that group of board members. … The idea of reopening negotiations is horrible for a number of reasons.”
The DPS board voted 4-0 in favor of the modified decree in July, but Merida and Jimenez were not present to vote. Kaplan voted for the measure then.
Their letter states: “The president of the board did not ensure that all members were present for the vote, and the public record shows that only four of the seven board members were present for the very hurried vote, neither of which were the Latino/bilingual members.”
They complained that leading up the vote, there was very little opportunity to study the changes to the consent decree in depth.
“In short, what we ask the Court to understand is that this MCD does not represent the wishes of the Board of Education.”
The three board members informed Matsch that they had never even met counsel hired to deal with this case – Laurel Pyke Malson – until Friday in court and that they were not informed of a hearing in November.
The three board members also said they were “gravely concerned that the school district has not complied with even the most basic requirements of the court order and has chosen a policy path that veers sharply away from the intent of the decree.”
The letter criticized the district’s reform agenda as something that has “systematically segregated our public schools by race, socioeconomic status and English proficiency.” Finally, they complained that many of the district’s most highly qualified teachers have been “pushed out of the district, only to be supplanted by itinerant, short-term teachers recruited by organizations such as Teach for America.”
The three members asked the judge to consider re-opening negotiations, a suggestion he denied.
“It’s apparent something needs to be done to improve delivery of services,” Matsch said. “To start from scratch doesn’t make any sense.”
The board trio also requested that an independent community liaison to the Justice Department be appointed so that community members could air grievances, along with a monitor to file regular reports to the court.
After the hearing, Jimenez said he asked to observe negotiations when they were happening and was told by district staff, “We will get back to you.” DPS Chief Academic Officer Susana Cordova said she met with each board member individually about the modified consent decree – except Jimenez and Merida. Jimenez said he did not meet with Cordova because it was clear that only “limited information” would be shared.
“It didn’t make sense to waste my time,” he said after the hearing.
Merida said early in the process she wasn’t allowed to read consent decree documents on her own time and at home, but had to read them in the district offices.
“The notion that I, as a board member, could not be trusted with a legal document is insulting,” she said after the hearing.
Judge displeased by school board division
Malson told the judge she didn’t understand the “impetus for a change of heart.” She said it was as if the three board members “haven’t read the consent decree.”
“There is something else going on and it’s rather manufactured,” she said.
The judge became somewhat testy with Malson and said he worried that a divided school board would mean the consent decree would never be properly implemented.
“My responsibility is to the people in the community,” Matsch said. “Is this going to be ignored, or be the subject of continuing controversy? If I don’t have the support of Board of Education I’m not going to do it.”
Seawell, though, told the judge that no board members had brought up any concerns until Thursday.
Matsch said there would likely be conditions added to his ultimate approval of the decree, such as additional monitoring and procedures for doing so, along with more “wiggle room” in the document.
“I think it’s too stringent,” Matsch said.
He asked the three parties to submit a status report by the end of March.