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Responding to CPEdNews questions, DPS Board candidate John Youngquist says Dennis firing was retaliation; main issues: school safety, mental health, creating transparent, strong organization, refocus on teaching and learning

Central Park Education News asked the three candidates for an open at-large seat on the Denver school board to answer eight questions about issues facing the state’s largest school district.

Kwame Spearman and John Youngquist offered responses. The third candidate in the race, Brittni Johnson, did not. Johnson did respond to questions from the Greater Park Hill News in September. Click here to see the responses of all three candidates to the newspaper.

The views of John Youngquist: 
  1. What is the role of a Denver school board member?

The roles and responsibilities of a school board are primarily focused on providing effective representation for members of the community and engaging as a leader for development and execution of policy within the context of the district. The full commitment of the DPS school board must relate to ensuring academic growth and equitable academic outcomes for the children that we serve. Specific roles and responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Listening to and representing the interests of the community residing in the school district.
  • Ensuring that the school district is responsive to and acting upon concerns represented by the district.
  • Hiring and evaluating the superintendent of the school district.
  • Supporting the development of, adoption of, and holding the district accountable to district policy.
  • Engaging in school board meetings where the content and implementation meet the requirements set forth by law.
  • Ensuring that the work of the schools and the district result in increased academic results for the children that we serve.
  1. What are the top three to five issues facing Denver Public Schools?

The top 4 issues facing the Denver Public Schools include school safety, mental health, creating a transparent and strong organization, and refocusing our efforts on teaching and learning.

  • School Safety: One of my strengths as an educator is to know and understand the measures that we need to take to secure the safety of our students and school staff. DPS needs to create a solid agreement with our safety partners. It has been ten years since a “Memo of Understanding” has been agreed upon by DPS and the Denver Police Department. DPS also needs to redesign the district’s “discipline matrix.” The discipline matrix should be a tool that supports, and, through the consultation of district partners, guides school personnel in the effective creation of positive school culture and the decision that school personnel will take when responding to behavioral events demonstrated by students.
  • Mental Health: Since an escalation of teenage suicide, the pandemic, and even shootings at school, our leadership has failed to redesign a mental health system that supports our children. Here are two immediate actions that I would require as a board member: double and fully fund the mental health services at school sites; create a service continuum and mental health service centers, similar to Cherry Creek’s Traverse Academy so students can access a continuum of mental health services to meet their needs.
  • Transparency in a strong organization: Right now the school district, as led by this board, is impossible to read. What is the vision? What are the goals? What is happening in this place? Here are two immediate actions that I would require as a board member: Open the financial books in a way that the community can understand. Create data models to support district and school level progress in regard to attendance, behavior, and academic progress that can be used by schools to support our students.
  • Teaching and Learning: The school board needs to re-engage our ultimate focus on our ultimate responsibility, teaching and learning. Here are two immediate actions that I would require as a board member: The current “LEAP” evaluation system is awkward and overly intense. We need to work with teachers to tear it apart and rebuild a system in which teachers feel valued and are motivated to grow. Take our teachers from 5th to 1st in starting pay in the metro area- at this moment, why work in Denver when you can make thousands more in Cherry Creek or Westminster? It’s pricey to live in Denver and our teachers need this reason to join us.

Click here for Boardhawk story on what the school board does and why it matters.

  1. Alex Marrero has been DPS Superintendent for two years, but his performance has yet to be formally evaluated by the school board.

Do you think a formal evaluation is overdue? If so, should it be done sooner rather than later, not wait until the end of his third year in July 2024? Why or why not?

The DPS superintendent received a significant contract extension just months after entering his role and more recently received a retroactive pay increase of $25,000 and the potential to earn another $38,000 this year if he meets performance targets. And, he has yet to be evaluated by the board.

I have never heard of any DPS employee receiving a pay increase without annual evaluation and this should be viewed as outrageous.

Yes, certainly, a formal evaluation is well overdue and should take place immediately. This first evaluation should take place by the end of this calendar year, with no access to additional pay until the completion of the next annual evaluation in December, 2024.

  1. What do you think of the superintendent’s performance?

I do not think highly of the DPS Superintendent’s performance, so far. My perspective is framed by his inability to identify and solve the big issues that have arisen since he was hired.

He has failed to act in response to safety issues that have progressively worsened over the course of last year and he has failed to represent the significance of and act in response to the current academic challenges that our students are facing, especially our Black, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous children. The recent publication of the DPS Annual Report offensively represented only aggregate data, noting “goals achieved,” without in any way acknowledging our current failures as a district by disaggregating student achievement data by ethnicity, and other notable student groups.

Without understanding and acting to improve in the areas in which we are not effective, we will not grow to serve our children more effectively over time.

  1. It has been documented that the board spends a relatively small amount of time at their meetings discussing issues and policies related to student achievement.

Do you agree with that trend? What to you think the board should primarily focus on?

Yes, it is true that the board spends a relatively small amount of time at their meetings discussing issues and policies related to student achievement. Student achievement is the primary responsibility of our board of education. Currently, the board is overly distracted by individual and political interests and must reset the priorities so that expectations, policy, guidance, and accountability become the most important agenda items requiring the highest priority interest of our Board of Education.

  1. The superintendent fired Kurt Dennis as principal of McAuliffe International School in July, ostensibly because he revealed protected information about a student. However, there is strong public consensus it was in retaliation for Dennis speaking out about inadequate security procedures in schools.

Do you agree with the firing of Dennis? Why or why not?

Over the course of my career, I have hired hundreds of principals and recommended that the board of education discontinue the employment contract for more than a few. With the information available to me, my understanding is that Principal Dennis was “fired” from McAuliffe MS because he demanded support from our school district and did not receive it.

It was not the first time that he, and many other principals, had asked for support and been ignored. Then, the district became embarrassed and retaliated against him. I’ve been in this game for decades and a basic understanding of district policy and human resources practice represents that a superintendent cannot just fire a principal.

In this case, the superintendent seems to have ignored due process, required human resources processes, the school’s innovation plan requirements, and forgotten the responsibility of the school board to approve of his recommendation to terminate. We now know that the school board voted in August to approve the recommendation to fire Principal Dennis. In time, we will learn much more in response to the lawsuit filed by this school leader against our school district.

  1. During the public uproar over Dennis’ firing, several board members on numerous occasions publicly accused Dennis, before any investigation was completed, of improperly using a de-escalation room for disruptive students and of unfairly targeting racial minority students for disciplinary actions, the latter of which a district inquiry determined was false.

Do you agree with those actions by board members? Is it appropriate for board members to publicly criticize school leaders or other DPS employees? Why or why not?

The presence of a locked “de-escalation room” and concerns related to an over-representation of students of color with disciplinary action are concerns of the highest priority. Throughout my career I have taken action to reduce the overrepresentation of Black students with disciplinary action and have been successful in this work as a school leader at every level.

We can and must provide the social emotional and behavioral supports that support successful behaviors at school and use effective and motivating responses to any behavior concerns so that all students will be successful members of our school community and be fully engaged in learning.

I also have confronted the presence of and required the removal of seclusion rooms as chief academic officer in a neighboring school district. I am very familiar with these priorities.

At the same time, while a board member should be concerned about these issues, they should not publicly criticize school employees based on a report to them or an observation they have made. DPS board policy (GP10-E- Handling Operational Issues Raised by a Community or Staff Member) requires them to refer any concern for investigation to the superintendent so that the appropriate district staff may engage a full and unbiased investigation into such concerns and to respond accordingly to the results of that investigation.

  1. Once a month the school board holds a public comment session. In recent years, some controversial issues have attracted large numbers of speakers, forcing sessions to last several hours.

The current board plans to limit public comment to two hours out of respect, members say, of their time and that of staff members.

Do you agree with that new time limit or any limit on once-a-month public comment sessions? Why or why not?

No, I do not agree with the current board’s decision to limit the public comment session to two hours. This seems a selfish shift at a time when our DPS board needs more time to be present with our community.

In our effort to create a more transparent system, we need to extend community input opportunities and design them so that access is easier, not more difficult for our constituents.

As a board member, I would act to create more time for listening as a full board, extend listening sessions into identified areas of our community and begin to hold board meetings at school sites across our city, instead of holding them always at the school district administration building, which can be difficult to access for members of our DPS community.

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