The Denver school board will have an opening sooner than anyone thought – as in this month.
Board Secretary Nate Easley Wednesday confirmed that he is stepping down to take the helm at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, where he has served as deputy director since 2008. Because the foundation receives funding and support from DPS, he is leaving his board post to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest and due to time constraints.
His final meeting will be this month. He replaces Cindy Abramson, who is retiring March 1.
Easley, former school board president, said it’s been a longtime dream to run the foundation.
“The opportunity to lead the organization is incredibly humbling,” Easley said. “I feel like everything I’ve done professionally and educationally to this point has led me here. It’s a really good feeling.”
Board President Mary Seawell said the board has 60 days to agree upon a replacement. Since agreement on the board, which often finds itself in a 4-3 split, is hard to come by, finding a replacement quickly may be challenging. If the board can’t agree after 60 days, Seawell is charged with appointing a replacement, she said.
“My hope is that the board will reach consensus around someone to replace Nate,” Seawell said. “This is an enormous loss. Nate’s contributions have been quiet but really profound.”
Seawell joined the board the same year as Easley. She credited him for his efforts to turn around failing schools in the Far Northeast part of the city, which he represents on the board. Easley grew up in Montbello and now lives in Stapleton.
Even with recall, Easley fondly reflects on board service
Easley’s time on the board has not always been easy. He was the subject of a failed recall campaign in 2011. In the end, there weren’t enough valid signatures to trigger an election.
Easley’s detractors criticized him on a wide range of issues. But the primary complaint cited on the recall petitions alleged a conflict of interest posed by Easley’s dual roles as school board representative and deputy director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
Easley contended the animosity was political in nature and said that holding both positions posed no conflict. He was supported in that conclusion by an affidavit from DPS legal counsel.
Prior to joining the Denver Scholarship Foundation, Easley served as vice president for national and international programs for the Council for Opportunity in Education in Washington.
Denver Scholarship Foundation board Chairman Scott Scheirman said his board didn’t have to look far to find the perfect match for DSF.
“Nate has dedicated his entire career to making college possible for all students,” Scheirman said. “His passion for our mission and his impressive track record as deputy director make him the ideal successor who can ensure continuity and stability in the organization’s high quality work.”
Scheirman also credited Abramson, who served as DSF’s executive director since 2007, with leading the organization from its infancy as a start-up nonprofit to a thriving institution that has helped more than 25,000 students plan for college, raising $5 million each year and increasing college enrollment in Denver by 30 percent.
Key moments in Easley’s board tenure
A key moment in Easley’s DPS board tenure came in November 2010 when he was part of a 4-3 majority that set in motion a significant turnaround program for schools in his district.
The plan spelled out dramatic change for Montbello High School and the five schools that feed into it. More than 400 teachers and nearly 5,000 students were directly affected.
His affirmative vote as the newly elected representative for District 4 put him in at odds with board critics of Far Northeast plan – Jeannie Kaplan, Andrea Merida and Arturo Jimenez. Merida said she wished Easley well in his new endeavor.
“I simply wish him well and thank him for his service on the board,” Merida said.
Easley said he has mixed feelings about leaving the board.
“Ask my wife – she’s dancing a jig,” Easley said. “If you ask me, I’ve really enjoyed working with my colleagues on the board and especially (Superintendent) Tom Boasberg. I’ve learned so much from him.”
Easley credited Boasberg and his leadership of the district with turning DPS into the fastest growing urban school district in the nation, getting the bond issue and mill levy tax hikes passed in November and bringing in more than $150 million in private grants to the district.
“There is a lot of great buzz (about DPS),” Easley said.
Easley said many people questioned why he stayed on the board amid so much acrimony.
“People think I’m insane but I feel my service on the DPS school board is one of my defining moments of my professional career. At the end of the day, I don’t think there is any person on the board that is really not in it because we don’t care about kids. We all care about kids. The controversy really comes not with how to get to the mountain, but what’s the best route.”
Easley said he learned long ago not to take political jabs and fights personally.
“You leave your ego at the door.”
Whoever lands in Easley’s seat will have a small but useful incumbent advantage heading into the November 2013 election. Other open seats this fall include those held by Kaplan, Merida and Seawell. Seawell said she plans to run again. Kaplan is term-limited. Merida has not said whether she will run again.
Easley said he is confident Seawell will do a good job of creating a process to find his replacement.
“She has an amazing amount of integrity,” Easley said. “She will put together a process I think will be fair and yield someone who is not blindly committed to school reform, but (someone who will) be as good or better when it comes to educational issues as I was on the board.”