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Despite some positives, more troubling signs from DPS board

Thursday night’s Denver school board meeting was even more fascinating than usual, for several reasons.

I will start out with two positive observations, since I often focus on areas for improvement.

First, board members seem to be accepting the reality that three schools will have to close at the end of this school year. Denver Discovery School, MSLA, and Fairview Elementary are severely under-enrolled and have almost no new students enrolling for next year, after the just-concluded first round of the district’s school choice process.

To stay open, the three schools would need about $2.4 million next year in supplemental funding.

To be clear, the board has not made a decision, and will be working with those school communities to craft a plan for current students. But faced with the glaringly obvious, board members seem to have accepted reality.

Board members also worked Thursday (2/23) on a complex ‘executive limitation’ detailing how the district should go about deciding to close up to a dozen additional schools over the next few years, with community involvement every step of the way. It seems cumbersome, but at least it’s a plan.

Second, board members seem to be getting along better. The embarrassing public squabbles that dominated much of last year have receded. In fact, five of Auon’tai Anderson’s six colleagues showed up in Denver District Court to support him in trying to get a permanent restraining order against vocal district critic Brandon Pryor. The sixth board member would have been there had she not had a conflict.

A judge slapped down Anderson’s request, giving Pryor his second legal victory over the district in the past two months. Nevertheless, the ‘all for one and one for all’ display of solidarity might herald a more functional board going forward, regardless of the merits of the cause around which they rallied..

Now for a couple of more troubling developments from Thursday, though the second one I’ll touch on comes with a silver lining as well.

Board members discussed an amendment to an executive limitation titled, in the best Orwellian tradition, “Commitment to Accomplishment and Accountability.”

The amendment – not yet approved –  directs the superintendent to create an informational dashboard on schools that does NOT include:

  • Standardized tests scores
  • School rankings
  • A “summative color, star rating, number, or grade.”

Board member Scott Esserman said that in his conversations with community members, he has heard a desire for “information and data about what’s going on in the school…so that so that parents can get involved with ‘how do I work with the school to improve disproportionate discipline of disproportionate numbers of students enrolled in gifted and talented, honors, advanced coursework, that we know is essential to all students succeeding.”’

Stressing repeatedly that the dashboard components (and exclusions) are not final, Esserman said they represent “the initial statements of value that the board is making about what we think are important.”

He said the board wants to hear from “unique and individual organic community voices,” rather than organized groups staging letter-writing campaigns, or the usual loud voices.

Fair enough. And of course the dashboard should include the kind of information Esserman was promoting, as well as survey-based data on climate and culture.

But excluding test score data amounts to deliberately withholding relevant information from the public. Board member Michelle Quattlebaum said that information is available elsewhere. That’s true, but ludicrous nonetheless.. Try negotiating the Colorado Department of Education website and see what you come away with. Sure, the information is there. It’s not exactly a user-friendly interface.

The truth of the matter came from board member Scott Baldermann, who, to his credit, speaks his truth in plain language, leaving no doubt about where he’s coming from. Baldermann said his primary concern about a dashboard is that “it would be a tool used for competitive purposes.”

Removing test scores, ranking, and color-coding would make it more difficult to use the dashboard for those competitive purposes.

Here’s where Baldermann and the rest of the board gets it wrong. It’s not about competition. It’s about comparison.

If these exclusions are adopted, what the Denver school board is telling Denver parents is that they don’t want you comparing schools as you try to choose which one is best for your child.

Of course there are complex, nuanced and multifaceted reasons why some schools have higher test scores than others. But give parents some credit. They can do their own analyses.

Withholding information is an attempt to limit choice, plain and simple. It’s also just the latest example of how this board does not value transparency, despite much lip-service to the contrary.

Finally, the board Thursday placed on the agenda and then indefinitely postponed a resolution that could have dramatically boosted board member pay. School boards never received pay in Colorado until a 2021 law made it permissible.

DPS adopted a limited pay structure late in 2021 that would have allowed board members to receive no more than $750 per month – $150 per day for a maximum of five days per month.

The now-delayed resolution would have lifted that cap and allowed board members to be paid as much as $33,000 per year. That could potentially cost the district $231,000 per year.

Anderson, who championed this resolution, said its aim was to make board service accessible to people of limited means, who can’t afford to take on a volunteer commitment that can become full-time. That’s a legitimate point and merits extensive public conversation.

Here’s the silver lining. Wiser heads prevailed and a vote on the resolution was postponed indefinitely. Someone, it’s not clear who, appears to have tried to sneak the resolution through without an opportunity for the public to comment on it.

At a time when the DPS debt clock continues to tick, that would have been a bad look indeed.

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