“If I’ve done a decent job, Tom will do an even better job.” — U.S. Sen Michael Bennet
When former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet was tapped by then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, the urban district’s board of directors looked to its Chief Operating Officer, 44-year-old Tom Boasberg, to steer the ship. At the time, the district was in its early years of navigating the sometimes murky and rough waters of free-market school reform.
Boasberg, who joined the district in May 2007, was viewed as the top candidate to replace Bennet, a childhood friend. His likeness to Bennet — including a law degree and years of experience in the corporate world but little background in classroom instruction — made him in some ways a natural successor.
DPS school board President Theresa Pena, at the time, said hiring Boasberg meant the district wouldn’t “skip a beat.”
Boasberg’s ascension to the corner office at 900 Grant St., where the district’s central headquarters are located, brought favorable reaction at the time. Colorado politicians and education advocacy groups shot off statements of praise, as did the teachers union.
But Boasberg, then and now, has not been without his critics.
In the five years since Boasberg was appointed leader of the large urban district, enrollment has grown and the student growth has improved — modestly. However, the district still has a wide achievement gap, low proficiency scores, and officials have yet to hone an improvement strategy that teachers, principals, parents and observers can latch onto, understand and participate in.
That’s the assessment of some of Boasberg’s colleagues and critics who spoke to Chalkbeat Colorado as the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools closes out his fifth year in office.
Here we discuss Boasberg’s five-year tenure through five perspectives and news reports. Plus, Boasberg chimes in himself.
Whom we spoke to
Tony Lewis is the executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a private family foundation thats aims to improve public education. (Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation provides funding for Chalkbeat Colorado.)
Andrea Merida is a former DPS board member. She was a vocal critic of the Boasberg administration and a leading board dissident who generally opposed many of the administration’s reform efforts.
Van Schoales is the CEO of A+Denver, an education reform advocacy organization.
Henry Roman is president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Denver’s largest teachers union.
David Greenberg is founder of the Denver School for Science and Technology, now known as DSST Public Schools. Greenberg is currently a vice chancellor at Denver University. His opinions do not represent those of either DSST or DU.
Consistency was an integral part in the decision to appoint Boasberg as superintendent after Bennet left the district for Washington. In many ways, Boasberg and Bennet were cut from the same cloth: both were privately educated in Washington, both had law degrees and both spent time in the private sector working for big businesses. However, there was one big difference.
Roman: Bennet was definitely more political. He had political savviness. And that’s a big difference.
Boasberg, who will be 50 this year, is a self-proclaimed introvert.
Boasberg: Introverts build fewer relationships that are deeper, that’s true for me. I think I’ve had to work hard to make sure that I work hard to form more and more relationships with more people.
One of those people who Boasberg had to spend a lot of time with during his tenure was board member Andrea Merida. The two didn’t always see eye-to-eye. But …
Merida: I always say we’re both renaissance people and education activists. I’ve been impressed by his growing expertise and thoughtfulness of equity. He’s always treated me with a lot of respect, which I didn’t get from a lot of people in his realm.
For education advocate Van Schoales, the fact that Boasberg has little background in the classroom is a double-edged sword.
Schoales: Tom’s strength is also his weakness. He’s not an educator. I think because of that, he’s been more open-minded to doing things differently. He’s brought in some great folks for the service, food and transportation departments. Lewis: Tom is a very good human being. He’s an honest, straightforward person. But he has a thin skin. It’s a tough quality to have in a superintendent. Boasberg: I disagree. I don’t think [I’d] survive in this job [if I had a thin skin].
Boasberg has done more than survive. He’s outlasted most expectations.
Greenberg: Being a superintendent of an urban public school district is perhaps the hardest job in public life. It is a thankless task. You are always being scrutinized and have no real allies. Every decision you make creates new enemies. Most superintendents get thrown out or burn out in about 3.5 years. So, first and foremost, the most remarkable thing about Tom Boasberg’s fifth anniversary is that he has survived and thrived.
How well Boasberg has handled the scrutiny, however, is open to interpretation.
Lewis: [Superintendents] catch a lot of flack. And Tom takes it very personally. While he’s one of the most honest and forthright and respectable people I’ve dealt with, he has an aversion to risk. While I get along with him well, a lot of people find him hard to read.
Flack is something that Boasberg has not been in short supply of. Whether it was minute policy changes like co-locations of schools or dramatic overhauls of entire networks of schools like the one in far northeast Denver, plenty of his decisions have caused public outcry.
Merida: What happened at North High School, as far co-location goes, as far as co-location goes in general, it causes a lot of stress. Boasberg will say the community is calm, now. But communities have to work it out.
In 2012, the DPS school board, in a 4-3 vote, approved the co-location of a STRIVE charter school at the North High School Campus. Supporters of North believed at the time the board was sending a signal that the governing body was no longer interested in investing in the struggling school. Meanwhile, the STRIVE network said it had simply run out of room and needed space to create a high school for its students. Early in the debate, the district attempted to find a compromise that would have shuffled many northwest schools to different buildings. around. However, logistically it couldn’t happen.
Boasberg — despite some complaints — believes his administration is doing a better job of managing public engagement than it ever has.
Boasberg: There were times early on, we didn’t do a good enough job of having a longer community process to discuss what needed to be done. We’ve worked harder to have longer community discussions and processes. Sometimes we’re going to reach decisions that not everyone is going to support. But the role of the leader is to be responsive to the community and have the community’s take. Sometimes you have to make the decision not everyone will be happy with, especially, when it comes to putting the interests of kids ahead of adult interests.
Merida agrees the district is doing a better job of engaging the community. But the process could still be improved.
Overall, Boasberg believes the district’s strategies have been worth it and are working.
Boasberg: I think, three years ago, we were in a situation with hundreds of families who live in [the far northeast] who put their kids on buses for hours a day, just in the hopes of going to a better school. Now, those families are here. They’re staying here. The families are saying the schools are a lot better. At the same time, this work is not one year and we’re done, especially in areas with high poverty.
In fact, recent reports highlight the mixed successes of Boasberg’s tenure.
Greenberg: Enrollment continues to climb at a time when most urban districts in the U.S. are losing students. DPS has succeeded in making early childhood development an essential component of the system. The fiscal condition of the district is sound compare that with Philadelphia, Detroit and numerous other urban districts. The district has succeeded in providing more low-income students with access to better schools. Boasberg: We’ve gone from being the lowest district with year-over-year academic growth of our kids in the state to the highest. All the statistics would predict we’d have the lowest. We’ve had the highest growth two years in a row. If you look at the top 25 [growth] schools in the state, we have 15 of them. We’ve decreased our dropout rate by 60 percent since the start of the Denver Plan [in 2005]. I think all those things are remarkable.
Schoales: That growth hasn’t turned into proficiency.
What’s more, much of that success, observers point out, hasn’t come from district-led efforts, but charter schools.
Schoales: I think [the instruction at DPS] is really weak. The most dramatic progress we’ve seen is through new schools and charters. We don’t see progress in the traditional, district-run schools. I don’t get it, to be honest.
One of the hallmarks of Boasberg’s efforts to boost student achievement is closing low-performing schools. Since 2009, DPS has closed or is phasing out 18 low performing schools. The most ambitious and controversial was the turnaround efforts in the far northeast neighborhood, where three schools were phased out and replaced by multiple programs and one school was taken over by a charter operator (that has since handed back its charter).
Lewis: It’s been a mixed bag. If you look at the data, more kids are getting a better education in Denver. But it continues to authorize and keep some open like Escuela Tlatelolco [which has been one of the district’s lowest performing elementary charters schools for three years].
Boasberg, last fall, recommended that Escuela Tlatelolco’s charter be re-authorized for one year.
Lewis: That’s the thing that stuns me: why? Maybe he thinks the politics are too hard with the community? That seems crazy to me. The hard part is to figure out where the district is headed. There’s no clear strategy I can identify.
Boasberg maintains there is a strategy: people. He said the district is committed to having teams of quality teachers and leaders in every building.
Boasberg: I think we do have a clear idea of what’s working. Most importantly, having high-quality leaders and teachers working together as teams. But human beings are not clones. Teams are not clones. You can’t just say you have a high performing team [in School A] and just clone the members of that team and put them in School B. It’s about recruiting talent in all of our schools. I think we have a very clear idea of what’s working. What we’re working very hard on is how do we scale those practices that are working well.
Part of the district’s overall strategy to recruit, evaluate and retain effective classroom teachers is the LEAP evaluation program. The district began piloting the program in 2011 in response to Senate Bill 191, or the Colorado Teacher Effectiveness Act, which passed in 2010. This school year is the first year all Colorado schools must evaluate their teachers, however no personnel decisions may be made off the results.
Teachers union boss Roman said the Boasberg administration has been a good partner.
Roman: There are ups and downs — like any other relationship. But we’ve worked closely with DPS and the Gates Foundation with the LEAP process. The conversation is not easy.
One of those downs is the district’s use of mutual consent, or how teachers are placed in schools. In 2012, the union accused the district of keeping secret files that contained information used to place teachers on leave without giving them a chance to respond. The district denied the claims. Earlier this year Boasberg again defended the district’s use of mutual consent after the state’s largest union filed a lawsuit against the district.
Merida: We went full-court press on implementation of SB-191 well before [we needed to]. I think LEAP is a work in progress. It has improved quite a bit. But we still need to fix the gap between the evaluator and H.R. We also need to make sure principals and school leaders are also evaluated and high quality.
Boasberg has defended the district’s use of mutual consent.
Denver, like many Colorado school districts, has historically had a shortage of quality leaders, especially at the secondary level. And with the advent of turnaround schools, research now points to an entirely different skill set principals need. But Boasberg believes the district is — for the first time — in a strong position for recruiting and retaining leaders.
Boasberg: This is an area where we’ve been most successful. For the first couple of years, we were not as successful as we should have been. I wish I would have started on this Day 1. But the focus we have on leadership development is the best in the nation. We have a clear vision on the kind of leadership that is most appreciated. We ask our [schools] every year, to provide their assessment of school leaders. We’re seeing [positive] growth. I would say, four or five years ago, when we lost a school leader, especially at the secondary level, we’ve struggled. Now, I’m very confident.
But Merida points out the support teachers and principals receive from the district also needs to be enhanced.
Merida: I’m flabbergasted by the lackluster instructional superintendents. These support positions, if they’re not effective, they don’t work. That’s a big thing. It’s still a big problem.
So while the district might have isolated instances of successes at schools and certain departments, the next challenge everyone seems to agree upon is the need to replicate over and over.
Schoales: Very few districts are able to scale-up. Boasberg: That’s exactly what we are doing — recognizing that successful implementation of a very large organization is a difficult task. You’re not going to get it right every time. People are going to make mistakes.
Charter school founder, Greenberg, agrees.
Greenberg: Even Peyton Manning throws incompletes about a third of the time. That being said, school turnarounds and community conversations have been a constant source of friction. This is true in virtually all urban districts nationwide. Roman: On the surface, our schools are doing great, but do we maintain? We have to pay close attention to the details. There has to be proper oversight and enough resources. Those are still key to success.
Providing resources to schools has been a struggle for Denver, as it has been for all Colorado school districts since 2009, when the state fell victim to budget cuts due to the Great Recession. Only next year will some school districts begin receiving more state money.
Boasberg: The economic challenges have been extraordinary. Four years ago we were one of the lowest funded states in the country, as far as K-12 education. We’re now $50 million lower. Apples to apples. I think money isn’t everything. It’s essential we spend every dollar well. But resources matter in terms of giving kids individual attention, really helping our kids who are struggling catch up, how do we give kids more time, provide more social/emotional and mental health supports, helping us attract and retain good people. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve attracted $150 million in competitive funding, it’s really helped us move forward with professional development and innovation practices. We’re at a remarkable time to build on the progress we’ve made to have a unified vision with our school board to do what we need to do for kids and an economy that hopefully in its recovery will help us target more resources.
Denver voters did approve a bond and mill levy in 2012. But critics, including former board member Merida, have criticized what they see as a lack of oversight and transparency around how that money is being spent. She believes the district’s handling of the bond is one reason why Denver voters did not approve Amendment 66, which would have increased taxes to boost education spending. The amendment was handily defeated across the state.
Merida: There have been a lot of missed opportunities. The bond has been un-transparent. It’s weathered a lot of trust with voters. The district has left a bad taste in a lot of voters’ mouths.
If money isn’t everything, as Boasberg attests, relationships between a superintendent and his board might be. Observers have long believed the dynamics between Boasberg and his board, which until November was usually split on market-based reform policies 4-3, held up the district’s success.
Merdia was a vocal member of that minority.
Merida: I disagreed on implementation, not values. It was very important at the beginning of my tenure that I represented a voice of a different community.
Those disagreements have overshadowed Boasberg’s tenure almost from the beginning.
Merida and other dissident board members’ disagreement with Boasberg reached an apex in 2012 when the board’s minority released its own assessment of the Boasberg administration during the superintendent’s annual review. While the board’s majority felt Boasberg had lived up to his goals, the minority accused Boasberg and his staff for not following board policy. They also recommended that he not receive any performance-based compensation.
Last year the board released only one performance review, but it did contain remarks from the two camps.
Schoales: The old board would latch onto anything. That doesn’t work. Boasberg: I learned [from Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida] how personal politics can sometimes be. I really learned a lot about what makes an effective leadership team and what can upset leadership relationships. It’s important for the board to spend time to develop itself and as a team to develop the relationship between the board and the superintendent. Merida: We know where we agree and disagree. For me, Tom was never the catalysis for the strife. But strife isn’t a bad thing; it’s part of the democratic process.
But that’s all changed since the November 2013 election. A slate of candidates that generally support the reform efforts DPS has undertaken was elected.
Schoales: Tom has a board behind him now. Boasberg: In two months with the new board, we’ve spent more time as a leadership team then we did the previous four years. It really takes time when you have seven extremely intelligent, forceful individuals.
To say Boasberg is optimistic about his work with the new board is an understatement. But having a board almost completely behind a superintendent comes with its own challenges.
Schoales: Tom has a tendency to support his staff before he asks whether a program is working or not. If the district was to do more self-evaluating and be more transparent, the district could take a big turn.
As Boasberg enters his sixth year, the board of education is rewriting the Denver Plan, the district’s strategic document, and at the same time, the superintendent himself is reflecting on his strategies and leadership style.
Boasberg: I think, we have a lot of challenges. I didn’t do a good enough job early on, and still need improvement on [explaining] these are our priorities and we’re just [not] going to focus on these things. As a leader, I’ve learned and grown. I don’t think I did a good enough job focusing on our culture and values as a team. I don’t think I did a well enough job of coordinating of different parts of the districts. I think that’s improved. As a leader, I think it always came naturally for me to lead from my head. As an introvert, someone who is more private, I’ve had to learn that in an organization like this, everyone is here largely because of their hearts, they care about kids. Being a stronger leader from heart has been important. I’m pretty cognizant of a few things I’d do different.