More State Board disruption

State board chair Marcia Neal resigns, citing “dysfunction”

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
State Board of Education Chairwoman Marcia Neal has resigned.

Marcia Neal, chair of the State Board of Education, announced her resignation Thursday morning. In an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, Neal said board dysfunction was one reason for her decision.

“You know how dysfunctional we are, and that is really difficult for me,” Neal said. “I find it really difficult to deal with that.”

In a letter sent to fellow board members Thursday morning, Neal wrote:

“While under better circumstances, I would like to stay on the board to work toward common goals and mutually agreed upon aspirations for improving learning for all students. In fact, I don’t hear any board discussions about the benefits of our work in supporting student learning – making students better prepared for the world they’ll encounter after graduation. We don’t talk about how we’re improving their education to truly make them fully prepared for college or a career of their choice. If we’re not working for these things, what are we doing to meet our responsibilities for preparing our students for success? Unfortunately, I do not see that the current board is interested in working together and reaching consensus.”

(Read the full letter here.)

She also said health issues were the other reason for her decision. Neal is still recovering from the effects of a fall last winter.

“It’s been a struggle,” she said.

Neal’s departure comes at the same time as education Commissioner Robert Hammond is preparing to leave the department. He announced his retirement, effective later this month, in late April.

The composition of the seven-member board and the tone of its meetings changed after new members elected last November took their seats in January.

The new members were Republican Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Democrat Val Flores of Denver. Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, was re-elected to a second six-year term last November.

Neal was elected chair in January. Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder was elected vice chair, something that didn’t sit well with the board’s three other Republicans, Durham, Pam Mazanec of Larkspur and Deb Scheffel of Parker. The vote for vice chair was by secret ballot. Because there are only three Democrats on the panel, one Republican – presumably Neal – voted for Schroeder.

The new board started things off with a bang in January, with members voting 4-3 on a surprise Durham proposal to allow school districts to request waivers from the first part of standardized testing this spring. The move ultimately came to nothing because the attorney general ruled that neither the board nor the department had the legal power to grant such waivers.

At meetings later in the spring, the board – often with majorities led by Durham and including Mazanec, Scheffel and Flores – criticized the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, refused to set cut scores for last fall’s 12th grade science and social studies tests and declined to accept staff recommendations for changes in upcoming high school graduation guidelines. (For background on the board’s tumultuous spring, see this story about the April meeting and this article about its May session.)

In her letter, Neal also criticized fellow board members for lack of communication and cooperation.

“Sadly, our current board has become dysfunctional,” she wrote. “Past protocols were very effective with regard to communicating and the sharing of information. Those protocols are now largely ignored by several board members.”

For the last five months board meetings often have been marked by confusion and delay as Neal at times struggled to maintain procedures and keep to the agenda, particularly when proceedings were interrupted by Durham or Flores.

Neal also expressed concern about high-level departures from the department. “We’ve recently had a surprising number of resignations and notices of retirement. One has to wonder how much of the board’s seemingly destructive behavior has contributed to this exodus.”

In addition to Hammond, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen and Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley are leaving. Owen will be superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson schools, and Hawley is taking an administrative job with Denver Public Schools. Carey Markel, the board’s top administrative officer, left for a job with the Boulder city attorney. And Thursday afternoon Janelle Asmus, CDE’s chief communications officer, informed colleagues that she is leaving to take a communications position with the Adams 14 district.

The board is just starting its search for Hammond’s replacement and has yet to hire a search firm. Elliott Asp, special assistant to Hammond, was chosen Wednesday as interim commissioner.

Neal’s replacement will be chosen by a Republican Party vacancy committee in the 3rd Congressional District, which she represents. She said she expects that to happen by August. That person will have to run for election in November 2016.

Neal is a retired social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who was first elected to the board in 2008. She previously served as vice chair and often was a swing vote on the board.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.