A hint of debates to come

Testing, standards skepticism surface at pre-session legislative hearing

The state’s academic standards and testing system drew skeptical questions from both sides of the political aisle Wednesday, providing a taste of what are expected to be prolonged discussions on those issues after the 2015 legislative session convenes on Jan. 7.

“Maybe it’s time we had an open mind on whether we’ve headed in the right direction,” suggested Sen.-elect Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, referring to education reform initiatives of the last several years and flat student performance over the last decade.

“Just suppose Colorado backs out of Common Core. What effect will that have?” asked Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

The two repeatedly asked such questions during a pre-session joint meeting of House and Senate education committee members, who gathered for a briefing on the strategic plans of the departments of education and higher education.

The annual event is typically a pro forma affair, but this is the time of year when lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staff and Capitol observers start looking for rhetorical straws in the wind that might give hints about the upcoming session.

“The discussion was very interesting,” said Sen.-elect Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who sat at the back of the hearing room and didn’t participate in the discussion.

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo

Merrifield is a retired music teacher and former House member who won a Senate seat last month. He’s known for his skepticism about almost any kind of education reform idea.

He also had questions about the Common Core State Standards, asking, “Are the assessments going to be fair in assessing Colorado standards?”

Wilson, a retired rural superintendent with a taste for Western-cut suits and cowboy boots, complained about federal testing requirements, asking, “Why do the feds have any right to tell us how we assess our students in Colorado?”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

Merrifield has been named to the 2015 Senate Education Committee. Wilson served on House Education last session and is a big advocate for small districts and for increased kindergarten funding.

Department of Education leaders gamely and politely tried to answer the two lawmakers’ questions.

Responding to Merrifield’s first question, Commissioner Robert Hammond noted that education initiatives such as new standards and educator evaluation only rolled out in districts last school year so it’s too early to gauge their impact on student achievement.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when you’re just starting,” Hammond said. “Education reform is like turning the Titanic. … If we hang with it I’m convinced we’ll see changes.”

Responding to Wilson’s question about dropping out of Common Core, Hammond said, “My answer to that is, what next? … I don’t mean to be flippant, [but] what do we change them to?”

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley responded to Wilson’s federal requirements question by noting Colorado could lose more than $300 million a year in federal funding if it didn’t meet those testing requirements.

“I think it’s a violation of constitutional rights,” Wilson groused.

The meeting, called a SMART Act hearing after the 2010 law that requires such sessions, didn’t draw a lot of legislative interest. Of the 20 current members of the House and Senate education committees, only seven showed up. Merrifield and Neville were the only two new lawmakers to attend. Several current House Education members are term-limited and won’t be returning to the Capitol.

See the slideshow CDE presented at the meeting

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.