The chief architect of Denver’s aggressive school reforms, superintendent Tom Boasberg, announced Monday that he will take six months of unpaid family leave starting in January.
Boasberg, his wife Carin and their three children — Nola, 15; Ella, 13; and Calvin, 11 — will spend that time in Latin America, traveling and learning to speak Spanish well, according to a letter Boasberg sent to DPS staff Monday morning.
Boasberg, who lives with his family in Boulder, said in an interview on Monday that he’s committed to continuing in his role.
“I’d love to lead for several more years,” he said. “And at the same time, this is trying to both serve the district and serve in my role as superintendent and be the kind of dad and husband that I want to be.”
The timing was right — both for his family and for DPS, he said.
“I’ve been superintendent for seven years and we’ve achieved some terrific progress and we’re seen nationally as having achieved more progress than almost every district out there,” Boasberg said.
He added that DPS has “a very strong and aligned and committed board of education” and “a very strong and experienced leadership team,” both of which he said allow him the opportunity to spend time with his family. He wrote in a letter to staff that he’s “fully confident” that DPS will “move forward full steam ahead” during his six-month absence.
A board behind him
Indeed, the timing of his leave is opportune. The recent school board election ensured that all seven board seats will soon be occupied by members who agree with Boasberg’s brand of reform, which includes cultivating a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.
The board will name an acting superintendent on Dec. 1, according to a letter from board president Happy Haynes. Haynes wrote that the board has discussed Boasberg’s status in detail but felt it was right to formally address the matter at the Dec. 1 meeting, after the newly elected school board is sworn in.
Boasberg’s contract is set to renew for another two years starting Jan. 1. The contract sets his annual salary at $236,220 but does not provide for unpaid leave. Boasberg said the board will have to approve it.
The board’s next regular meeting is Thursday, but the sole new member, Lisa Flores, will not be sworn in until after that meeting’s agenda is complete. Flores is replacing Arturo Jimenez, the lone consistent critic of the Boasberg administration, in representing northwest Denver and other close-in neighborhoods that are part of District 5. Jimenez was term-limited.
Jimenez said Monday that he expects that the district will stay the course in the superintendent’s absence. To Jimenez, that’s a bad thing. DPS has become more of an authorizer of nonprofit charter schools than an educator of kids, he said.
He called Boasberg “the hired mercenary to ensure this all happens without full consideration to the community impact.” And he noted that he hadn’t heard about the superintendent’s planned leave until he got an email on Monday.
“Now that he’s put the machine in motion and now that the school board is completely reliant — let’s call them unified — to serve these other interests, Tom Boasberg doesn’t really need to be there,” Jimenez said.
Boasberg said that he expects to return to work in July.
Unusually long tenure
Haynes’s letter notes that Boasberg is one of the longest-serving big-city superintendents in the country and says that his “leadership continuity has been critical for our progress.”
Boasberg has worked for the district since 2007, first as chief operating officer and then as superintendent. He took over the top position from Michael Bennet, who left the district in January 2009 after being chosen by former Gov. Bill Ritter to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
The nearly seven years Boasberg has shepherded the district is unusually long for someone in his position. The average tenure of big-city superintendents is a little more than three years, according to a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools.
Mike Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, said Monday that Denver’s progress is a tribute to the longevity and momentum Boasberg has provided.
“If you have an agenda that is really focused on improving student achievement and building the school district, and you have a board and senior administration aligned around that set of goals and able to do that work over a prolonged period, the chances of your getting results are far, far better than a school district that changes over its leadership every year or two years and is constantly fighting with itself about what its priorities are,” he said.
Casserly said doesn’t know of any other urban superintendent who has taken a six-month leave, but he applauded Boasberg for doing it.
“It’s a great way for him to step back and reflect on the work and then come back to that work with renewed energy and perspective,” he said. “It’s also a great vote of confidence in both the board and the senior staff around how good they are. And I think those things together make this another example of how Denver has created tools and strategies that other big city school districts across the country pay attention to.”
DPS’s track record under Boasberg is mixed. While enrollment has boomed and student growth has improved, the district still boasts low academic proficiency scores and the achievement gap separating white and minority students has grown. While minority students are showing gains on standardized tests, white students are improving more, widening the gap.
Asked what’s kept him at the helm, Boasberg said: “When I see the level of commitment and dedication and passion that folks have, that’s really what has helped sustain me and drive me, combined with this extraordinary opportunity to change kids lives for the better.”
Here is Boasberg’s letter to DPS staff: