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Latino community coalition calls for delay in Denver schools superintendent vote

Dr. Alex Marrero, wearing a dark checkered suit jacket, white shirt, blue striped tie and a lapel pin.
Two days after Alex Marrero was named as the Denver school board’s preferred choice for superintendent, he was named in a lawsuit in his previous district.
Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

A group of Latino community leaders called Tuesday for the Denver school board to delay its vote to confirm Alex Marrero as the next leader of Denver Public Schools after he was named in a lawsuit filed against his previous district.

The board’s sole Latino representative, however, told Chalkbeat the board is confident in its choice and has not discussed putting off the vote, saying it would be unfair to a qualified, competent Latino candidate who also has strong support in the community.

The Denver school board announced last Wednesday that Marrero, most recently the interim superintendent in New Rochelle, New York, was its choice to serve as the Denver district’s next superintendent. On the same day, the New Rochelle board selected an outside candidate, Jonathan Raymond, to be that district’s next leader, passing over Marrero.

A vote to finalize the Denver decision is scheduled for Thursday.

Latino community leaders had previously expressed concerns about the experience level of the superintendent candidates and called on the district to pause and reopen the search. In particular, they worried that none of the finalists had enough experience serving English language learners. After Marrero was named, those leaders said they were willing to work with him.

But the lawsuit raises new concerns, they said in an open letter Tuesday.

“Now that we have learned about the impending lawsuit in New Rochelle, New York, we are once again asking the board to halt the confirmation of Dr. Marrero pending a more thorough investigation into this lawsuit,” they wrote. “Without commenting on the merits of the case, this is especially important given that the lawsuit relates to the way in which Dr. Marrero allegedly handled the response to the COVID-19 [pandemic] in his previous school district.”

The letter is signed by Kathy Escamilla of the Congress for Hispanic Educators, Virginia Castro and Milo Marquez of the Auraria Historical Advocacy Council, Elsa Bañuelos of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, Tania Hogan of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, and Mike Cortes of the advocacy group CLLARO.

Brooke Balchan, the former medical director of the New Rochelle district, filed the lawsuit Friday in federal court in New York and names a number of top administrators, including Marrero. She accused them of overlooking her medical expertise in their COVID response, sidelining her, and retaliating when she complained. The Denver Post first reported on the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the New Rochelle district said officials are aware of the lawsuit but have not yet been served. Officials are not yet in a position to respond to every allegation, he said, but they deny any wrongdoing.

“The district categorically denies any current or former district employees have been silenced or retaliated against, in any manner, in connection with the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement from the City School District of New Rochelle said. “The district takes great pride in the manner in which its leadership team has handled all aspects of this unprecedented crisis. Any assertion that district representatives have acted in an unlawful manner in responding to the pandemic is simply false.”

Many of the allegations in the 50-page lawsuit are aimed at New Rochelle’s previous superintendent, Laura Feijoo. Marrero replaced Feijoo as the interim superintendent in September.

In the lawsuit, Balchan alleges that Marrero chose a different health screener than the one she recommended, changed plans for on-site COVID testing and in-person services for special education students on short notice, and didn’t acknowledge her efforts.

In January, Balchan learned that Marrero planned to transport school staff on buses to a local hospital to be vaccinated. This was before most school staff were eligible under New York’s guidelines, and she reported the situation to local health authorities, according to her lawsuit. The appointments were canceled, and the hospital faced state sanctions, according to the Journal News.

Balchan alleges that she was pushed out of her job due to these disagreements.

Denver school board President Carrie Olson and Vice President Jennifer Bacon said in an statement Tuesday that they continue to have confidence in Marrero after reading the lawsuit and talking to Marrero and the New Rochelle school board president, Rachel Relkin.

“The board is assured that the primary concerns about medical guidance were directed at the former superintendent of New Rochelle and other employees of the New Rochelle leadership team — who were also named in the lawsuit,” Olson and Bacon said. “The board president of New Rochelle stands by the actions of Dr. Marrero as appropriate and with the best interests of the district, its students, and its community in mind.”

Bacon and Olson said they expect that in Denver, Marrero would work in close consultation with local health officials, as the district has done over the last year. One of Marrero’s top priorities will be pandemic recovery.

In an interview Tuesday, board member Angela Cobián, who represents southwest Denver, also voiced strong support for Marrero. She said that she and Bacon previously met with the coalition of Latino leaders, and she takes their concerns seriously.

Cobián said she agrees the district needs to continue to prioritize multilingual students and especially students of Mexican and Chicano heritage, “because it is the majority of the school district.” However, she added, “I have full confidence in the process we ran, the finalists we chose,” and Marrero’s selection.

Cobián’s support for Marrero is significant because she is one of two remaining board members who was a supporter of previous district policies to improve schools that the current board majority campaigned against. The other board member, Barbara O’Brien, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The firm the district hired to conduct the superintendent search, Alma Advisory Group of Chicago, had flagged local news coverage that detailed some of the allegations laid out in the lawsuit, so it was not all a surprise to board members, Cobián said.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Cobián said she felt a “deep wave of sorrow and empathy” for Marrero, in part because of her experience being targeted by political opponents when she was running for public office as a young Latina.

“A leader of color is never going to be good enough for somebody,” she said. “You are in an impossible situation because there are going to be people who are not going to think you’re Latino enough. There are people who are going to say you are not qualified enough. There are critics who are going to come after you because of their own political position.”

“When your life’s work has been dedicated to the advancement of Latinx students and students of color, and people can just get away with the things they say about you … He is at the end of the day a qualified, competent Latino leader,” she said.

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