Who Is In Charge

Arts education requirement advances

It was kind of a topsy-turvy day in the House and Senate education committees.

Two bills of note passed out of House Education – a measure establishing a statewide arts education requirement and a proposal that would give student members voting power on the Colorado State University Board of Governors.

But, the sidelights and undercurrents in a long afternoon of work were perhaps more interesting.

  • The House panel approved one bill creating a state education mandate but rejected another.
  • Senate Ed killed a kindergarten bill most of its members dearly would have loved to pass.
  • A state agency director represented both support and opposition to another bill.
  • Two Republican senators urged a Democratic colleague not to gut his own budget bill.

It was that kind of afternoon, and it lasted from 1:30 p.m. until nearly 6. Here’s the rundown:

Mandate: Arts education

House Bill 10-1273, entitled “Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation in Arts Education,” is the swan song of Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, a retired music teacher who’s serving his last term and is chair of House Education.

More than a dozen witnesses – students, teacher and others – testified in favor of the bill, picking up on Merrifield’s introductory theme of how participating in the arts makes for well-rounded, higher-achieving students.

Two brave lobbyists tried to sing a different tune. Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards, argued (as she usually does) for local control, saying, “We can’t have art on demand or physical education on demand or foreign language on demand by the state. Those decisions have to made locally.”

Bruce Caughey of the Colorado Association of School Executives also opposed the bill. “This is a day I’ve been dreading,” he said. (His organization aligns with Merrifield on lots of issues.)

Merrifield proposed an amendment, which the committee accepted, that does soften the bill’s impact on districts. The change broadens the kinds of arts classes that students could take and also requires that students only “successfully complete” a course, not pass a standardized test.

The bill passed out of committee 10-2, with the only sour notes sounded by no votes from Republican Reps. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs, a former school board member, and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, a former teacher who’s married to a Douglas County principal. “I love you dearly,” Massey said to Merrifield, but “I promised my school districts I would not send them another unfunded mandate.”

Mandate: Exit exams

The committee passed Merrifield’s mandate at the start of the afternoon but killed Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg’s mandate at the end of the meeting.

The Sterling Republican’s House Bill 10-1254 would have required “a score at the proficient achievement level or higher on the 10th-grade statewide assessments in reading, writing, and mathematics; or a score on a postsecondary and workforce readiness assessment indicating that the student has attained postsecondary and workforce readiness” for a student to graduate from high school.

Sonnenberg talked eloquently about the state’s college remediation problem (see the EdNews Data Center for school-by-school stats on this problem). “I bring the bill because I’m not sure our kids are prepared for life.”

The bill was doomed from the start because it’s not in synch with the slow-moving juggernaut of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program, which will replace the CSAPs with another testing system in the next couple of years.

The issue set Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, off on one of her standard critiques of the CSAPs. She finally stopped herself, saying,  “I’d better shut up” – before continuing for a couple more minutes.

Members kept chattering, and Merrifield finally said, “I’m going to close off discussion for the moment” so witnesses – Caughey and Urschel again – could make return trips to the microphone to oppose the bill.

Sonnenberg said, “Thanks for letting me vent,” and the committee finally killed the bill 10-2.

Kindergarten: It was so hard to vote no

It’s not often that a committee kills a bill by the Senate president, and Senate Ed had a hard time doing so even when President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, asked them to do just that.

Shaffer’s Senate Bill 10-131 would have provided additional per-pupil funding to districts that provide high-quality full-day kindergarten to all eligible pupils. The trouble is it would have cost millions the state doesn’t have – about $200 million over the next three years.

“I don’t know from a cost perspective if we’ll be able to do it,” Shaffer said by way of understatement, asking the committee to kill the bill.

Softhearted committee members couldn’t bear to do that, and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, moved that the bill be sent to Senate Appropriations, which usually has little compunction about killing bills with price tags.

Heath’s motion failed on a 3-3 vote, so Senate Ed had to do the deed after all, voting 3-2 to postpone the bill indefinitely.

Agency head: Yes and no

Rico Munn was in a tight spot. Sitting in the witness chair as Senate Ed took up Senate Bill 10-079, Munn had to explain that he’s both director of the Department of Higher Education and director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

His trouble was that the department opposes the bill while the appointed commission, on which Munn serves as its top staffer but has no vote, decided recently to support the bill.

After joking about “two hats,” Munn made it clear he opposes the bill because the department would rather not have changes made in colleges’ missions while a sweeping higher ed strategic plan is being developed.

The bill would give Mesa State College expanded powers to award graduate degrees. Munn had to split for a meeting with his boss, Gov. Bill Ritter. Mesa President Tim Foster, a former DHE/CCHE director himself, and other favorable witnesses took over.

The committee passed the bill 5-2.

Won’t you change your mind?

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, was another bill sponsor with dark designs on his own proposal Thursday.

His Senate Bill 10-062 would have transferred allocation decisions for about $240 million in categorical education funds from the Joint Budget Committee to the two education committees. (Categoricals are earmarked funds that go to school districts for special purposes, primarily transportation and special education.)

Steadman said he’d decided that bill wasn’t politically or otherwise viable this year and asked the committee to strip out all but a few technical sections.

Republican Sens. Keith King of Colorado Springs and Mark Scheffel of Parker said they really liked the idea and urged Steadman to change his mind. He didn’t, the committee gutted the bill and then approved what little remained.

CSU students try again, win round 1

With Democrats and Republicans on both side of the vote, House Ed Thursday voted 7-5 Thursday to pass House Bill 10-1206, which would convert the two student representatives on the CSU Board of Governors into full voting members.

Sponsor Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said he was just “the person running this bill for the students.”

A parade of student leaders supported the bill, some noting that student representatives deserve a vote because tuition now provides such a large chunk of CSU’s funding (as it does for lots of state colleges).

Influential lawyer-lobbyist Mike Feeley, a former lawmaker who praised Fischer as “a tremendous friend of the university,” represented CSU and spoke against the bill.

The students, one from the Fort Collins campus and one from Pueblo, would have to be juniors, seniors or grad students and would be appointed to terms of one academic year. Student governments and administrations could suggest candidates to the governor for appointment. The board’s two faculty members would remain non-voting.

A similar measure failed last year. Like Merrifield’s arts bill, the prospects of the CSU bill may be dimmer on the floor or in the Senate.

For the record

House Ed approved House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to provide food services to member schools and would create a donation-supported fund in the Department of Education that could provide grants to BOCES for food services.

Senate Ed also passed Senate Bill 10-026 (authorizing data transfers between College in Colorado and CDE), Senate Bill 10-154 (accreditation standards for alternative schools) and Senate Bill 10-039 (concerning job training scholarships).

On the floor:

House Bill 10-1026 – Incentive grants for quality childcare programs, House final approval

House Bill 10-1232 – Classification of school vehicles, House preliminary approval

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

Share your thoughts on Boasberg’s exit here: