Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg is planning to do something that no big-city school chief has done in recent memory: Take six months off.
His announcement on Monday that he’ll be gone from January to July traveling in Latin America with his wife and three kids has raised questions about why he can take such an unprecedented break and how the district will weather his absence.
Boasberg will leave a district of more than 90,000 students and nearly 15,000 employees in the hands of a staff he’s built over his unusually long seven-year tenure. And he’ll leave with the blessing of a school board that universally backs his vision of reform.
The uncommon stability of Denver Public Schools is what makes his respite possible, observers said. For an urban district bent on drastic reform — including closing underperforming schools, welcoming new charter schools and paying teachers based on performance — Boasberg hasn’t dealt with the strife that has cut short the reigns of reform-minded superintendents elsewhere.
Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, credits Denver’s more even-keeled approach.
“It’s been politically astute, pragmatic, not ideological, less partisan, less got-to-do-it-now-at-all-costs,” said Henig, who has studied urban school reform. “And as a result of that, it’s avoided some of the backlash we’ve seen in other places.”
Several education advocates and DPS funders said they support the personal motivation behind Boasberg’s decision. But even some who understand why a devoted father would want a time out from his demanding job expressed concerns about what he’ll miss while he’s away.
Among the issues the district is expected to tackle in his absence are teacher contract negotiations, potentially contentious decisions about which schools to close and which to open, and preparations for asking voters to approve tax increases to benefit DPS in November 2016.
The school board is expected to name an interim superintendent Dec. 1.
“I’m concerned about the transition and whether it will really go as smoothly as the district hopes,” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the DPS teachers union. “It’s a complex district and he’s very much a top-down administrator, so I’m not sure what an interim would be able to do.”
Supportive board, mixed results
Boasberg joined DPS in 2007 as the district’s chief operating officer under then-superintendent Michael Bennet. The two have known each other since childhood; both attended the private St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.
Boasberg left a job as a senior telecommunications executive at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield to join DPS. By then, Bennet was two years into his plainly named Denver Plan to radically transform the city’s poorly performing schools.
Two years later, when former Gov. Bill Ritter chose Bennet to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat, the DPS school board quickly agreed that Boasberg should replace him. Boasberg has helmed the district since January 2009 and has continued the reforms set in motion by Bennet.
The reforms have resulted in both successes and shortcomings. Enrollment has grown and DPS is once again the biggest school district in the state. Students are also showing improvement on state tests compared to their peers, a metric known as academic growth.
But the number of students at grade-level is still low and the achievement gaps between white and minority kids are large and widening.
Research shows that the longer a superintendent is in charge, the better students do — given, of course, that the superintendent is a good one. Boasberg’s tenure can certainly be considered long. In 2014, a national survey of urban superintendents found that they’d been in office for an average of 3.18 years. Boasberg has been in charge for nearly seven — and has said he wants to serve several more after this sabbatical.
One factor that has allowed him to stay on top is the support of the school board. The makeup of the board has changed several times during his tenure but one thing has remained the same: a majority of the seven members support his vision.
And that majority has only gotten stronger. In 2009, four board members largely supported the district’s direction and three didn’t. By 2013, two election cycles later, that number had shrunk to one. When newly elected member Lisa Flores is sworn in Thursday, it will go down to zero.
Unlike in some big cities, including New York and Chicago, the superintendent in Denver is not appointed by the mayor, further insulating the position from shifting political winds.
Boasberg’s longevity “has a great deal to do with the board and board elections,” said Van Schoales, the CEO of A+ Denver, a pro-reform advocacy group. “That in turn is related to the environment in Denver that is different than a lot of places. The ecosystem for educational improvement and reform is richer than in other places.”
Or at the very least, the tolerance for it is higher. Part of that may be due to Boasberg’s style, observers said. The mild-mannered Denver superintendent has been slower and more methodical in rolling out reforms than some superintendents in other parts of the country.
Former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, for example, left her job earlier this year following widespread outcry over her aggressive plan to replace some traditional schools with charters and start a system of universal open enrollment all at once.
Boasberg also has made room for several different strategies on the road to reform, experts said. Over the years, Denver has authorized a mix of charters, innovation and traditional schools. At the same time, the district has increasingly prodded — some would say pushed — families to choose where to send their children rather than rely on the school down the block.
“Part of Tom’s vision — some might call it pragmatic — (is that) there is space for all as long as everyone can show results,” said Janet Lopez, a senior program officer at the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which has funded some DPS initiatives. “He’s not willing to say, ‘This is an all-charter strategy or an all-district strategy.’”
That approach has attracted considerable money and assistance from a wide spectrum of outside organizations, Lopez said. Rose Community Foundation, for one, is supportive of Boasberg taking a break “to recharge his batteries,” she said.
“We realize that real systemic change takes time,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, so we are excited to see consistency and continuity in the leadership of the district.”
Continuity and questions
That continuity is also important to the school board, said board vice president Anne Rowe. She explained that in supporting Boasberg’s request for a sabbatical, the board is “being respectful that this is good timing for Tom.”
In a letter to staff, Boasberg explained that he and his wife Carin met more than two decades ago while they were studying Chinese in Taiwan. They moved back to the United States after their oldest daughter was born but promised each other that they’d one day live overseas with their kids. Boasberg’s children are now 15, 13 and 11 “and will soon be off to college,” he wrote.
“To discover a world of learning,” he wrote in the letter, “is what we hope for our three kids: to live and travel in Latin America for six months, to learn to speak Spanish well, to learn about different cultures and to spend a lot more time together as a family than I have been able to spend over these years as superintendent.”
Boasberg’s contract is scheduled to renew for another two years starting Jan. 1. It does not allow for unpaid leave, though the board is expected to approve it.
“We’ve had seven years,” Rowe said of Boasberg’s tenure, “and Tom has agreed to stay at the incredible level he’s committed to — and we want that. This is as much about sustainability of leadership from the board’s perspective as anything.”
Board member Mike Johnson said he’s confident that the staff Boasberg has built over the past seven years “can take us forward and help us do what he was doing.”
Boasberg said the same on Monday shortly after publicly announcing his planned leave.
“What has driven progress when I’m here (is) what will drive it when I’m out for six months, which is talented leadership at all levels,” he said in an interview “None of that changes.”
But not everyone agrees the timing is good. Shamburg, of the Denver teachers union, said she was “flummoxed” by Boasberg’s announcement. She’s concerned his departure could impact ongoing teacher contract negotiations. And she said educators are worried about a policy the district is considering that would define when to close low performing schools.
“It’s problematic he’s leaving before schools know what’s going to happen,” she said.
Tony Lewis, the executive director of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has awarded grants to DPS, said he supports Boasberg taking time with his family. However, Lewis said, for a big-city superintendent to take a leave “you have to be showing progress and a clear path that you’re embarked on for improving the district and student performance. I’d say DPS is not there.”
The choice of interim superintendent will be closely watched, as will the transition and what transpires during the six months Boasberg is gone.
“I think it’s up to Tom to lay out his priorities before he leaves,” Lewis said, so the district is left with some certainty.
“It’s uncertainty,” he added, “that causes angst.”
Editor’s note: The Rose Community Foundation and Donnell-Kay Foundation provide financial support to Chalkbeat.