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Denver to principals: Keep concerns private, support district publicly

Denver Public Schools’ logo, with “Discover a World of Opportunity” imprinted on glass

Denver Public Schools is in the midst of several contentious policy debates.

Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat

Denver school principals are not allowed to advocate for proposed state laws during work time or using district resources if their opinion on the proposed laws differs from the district’s position, according to a letter sent to school leaders Wednesday.

“While we acknowledge and respect your rights as an individual citizen to advocate with government officials, we do expect you to support the direction and decisions of the district when you are acting within your work capacity,” said the letter signed by Denver Public Schools’ Chief of Talent Edwin Hudson.

Principals also were advised to keep internal their concerns about any district policies, procedures, strategies, or decisions by reporting them only to their work supervisors. 

Following these rules is “particularly important when you are speaking with your staff and/or your school communities,” the letter said. Denver principals sometimes have used their school email addresses to tell parents about the threat of budget cuts or the potential impact of a policy change and encouraged them to contact school board members.

 In an interview, Hudson said that when principals express views to their school communities that are contrary to the superintendent’s views, it can create confusion and mistrust. 

“We’re not about squashing speech,” Hudson said. “This is about our community receiving one consistent message.”

But, Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools, which includes two Denver middle schools, said principals have an obligation to be honest and inform their families.

The letter, he said, “caused a lot of fear among leaders.”

Hudson said he sent the letter following instances in which messages that were not professional or respectful were sent using district resources such as computers and internet service. He declined to offer details about the messages or who sent them. 

Denver schools are in the midst of several controversial issues that have pitted principals against district leaders. Last month, the school board passed a policy that limits the autonomy of Denver’s semi-autonomous innovation schools. The board approved the policy over the loud objection of many innovation school leaders who rallied their parents against it. 

Some leaders and parents continue to push the board to repeal the policy, saying they were misled by district officials about how the policy would impact their schools.

The district is also embarking on a process to close or consolidate schools due to declining enrollment, which is already sparking pushback from school communities. Hudson said the expectations laid out in the letter would apply to that situation, as well. As for whether principals would face consequences for violating them, Hudson said it would depend.

“There are consequences if you are contrary and using school resources to do that and not being professional and inclusive,” Hudson said. “Are there consequences because you might think a little different than I do? No.”

The letter comes six days after Magaña and another Denver principal testified in favor of a bill at the state Capitol that Superintendent Alex Marrero testified against. Senate Bill 22-197 relates to innovation zones, which are groups of semi-autonomous innovation schools. The bill would give zones the recourse to challenge district decisions by invoking a dispute resolution process.

Hudson’s letter specifically cites Senate Bill 22-197, which lawmakers are still debating.

“Because the superintendent has stated publicly that the district is opposed to the bill, it would not be appropriate to advocate for SB 22-197 during your work time, in your official capacity, or using district resources,” the letter said. “It would not be appropriate to rally school communities to take action in favor of this bill.”

Several parents of students at innovation schools testified in favor of the bill at a hearing before the Colorado Senate Education Committee last Thursday. It was unclear whether they’d been encouraged to do so by their children’s school principals.

Bailey Holyfield, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, one of Denver’s three innovation zones, also testified in favor of the bill. A former Denver Public Schools employee, she now works for the nonprofit organization that oversees the zone.

The letter, Holyfield said, “feels really top down” and like a departure from previous practice.

She said she’s concerned about the message it sends “about when we have productive dissent or duality of thought and opinion in service to all of our students.”

The Denver Public Schools employee handbook says district employees “may advocate in their professional capacities on behalf of legislation that is consistent with the district’s mission and values.” The example it lists is advocating for more state funding for schools. 

The Denver School Leaders Association contract says principals and assistant principals have the right to engage in political activity as long as it’s outside school hours.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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