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UPDATED: As pressure mounts on DPS board, will members pivot?

UPDATED: This post was updated at 7:15 a.m. November 25 to add comments from Denver school board member Tay Anderson.

There is a largely meaningless debate occurring on social media about whether departing Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova was pushed out by some members of the school board or if she made the decision to leave entirely of her own volition.

Cordova isn’t talking publicly. School board members who have gone on the record insist they did nothing to push her out.

In fact, the truth is out there in plain sight. The rudderless board, by failing to develop a strategic direction for Cordova to follow, and by meddling constantly in what should be the managerial side of the district, left her feeling hamstrung and ineffective. The board’s unhelpful evaluation in September made it clear that several members did not respect her work and would continue to meddle.

She wasn’t pushed, exactly, but she was hounded to the edge of the cliff. This, essentially, left her two choices: Stand and fight quixotically on principle over some worthy issue, or jump.

She jumped.

The blowback came fast and furious. Over the weekend, 14 women who served on previous DPS boards, issued a harsh condemnation of the current board’s actions, asserting that Cordova was disrespected at least in part because she is a woman of color. 

Expect the politically and racially diverse coalition of former board members to become a pressure group pushing the current board to get its house in order so that a search might yield a worthy candidate to replace Cordova.

And just this afternoon, former Denver Mayor (and federal cabinet secretary)  Federico Peña and current Mayor Michael Hancock similarly critical of the board. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“New school board members (some seeking to fire Dr. Cordova) were recruited and have opposed her efforts at almost at every opportunity. They mistreated her in public board meetings, interfered in the day-to-day management of the school system, rather than collaboratively establishing policies and direction for the district. They still have not developed a new district plan or long -term strategy beyond the expiring 2020 Plan…

“…It is tragic to watch political fights among adult school board members with personal agendas and little focus on student success.  The credibility of the Denver Board of Education was further undermined when the Colorado State Board of Education recently reversed the decision of the Denver board denying DSST-Noel from extending its current 8th Grade to a Noel High School. The current middle school, which is composed of 94% students of color, was the top performing school in Denver. The State Board’s stern reversal implies that the Denver Board’s decision was more politically, rather and educationally, based.

“Now we will be subjected to another costly, national search for a new superintendent which will likely become a “politized process.”  We do not believe that this dysfunctional board can now attract a more capable superintendent than Susana Cordova…”

See the full text here.

It’s not clear yet how this will play out. But the former board members are likely to urge current members to get some training on board governance and the proper role of a school board before beginning a search for a permanent replacement. They’re also expected to push the board to develop a vision and goals — including around equity — before searching.

What everyone wants to avoid is entering a vicious cycle too common in urban districts where a new board creates a churn in superintendents that stalls any progress (unacceptably slow yet steady over the past decade) and sets the district and its students back several years. Given the academic disaster caused by the pandemic, preventing further damage is essential.

This will be a big test for current board members, and they will come under tremendous pressure to ace it. No doubt some of their more ideologically driven allies will see any such effort to reset as a sell-out to the ‘corporate reformers.’ But how does learning from the experiences of others make you a sell out?

It’s instructive that one of the 14 signers of the letter was former board member Andrea Merida. During her four-year tenure, Merida, a strong progressive who is very smart and very tough, found herself in the minority on most controversial board decisions. There was much about the Bennet-Boasberg regime that she didn’t like. Philosophically, she would be prone to alignment with this current board — if it had a coherent philosophy.

Merida posted on Facebook over the weekend her reasons for signing the letter. Here’s a bit of what she said:

“…a year since the board was “flipped,” there still has not been a plan of action or a vision that this board has put forth. Instead, they expected Susana Cordova to read their minds. Had they put forth a vision which Cordova refused to implement, then it would have been time to get rid of her…

“This environment of disrespect is not right. Every employee deserves a good evaluation, with clearly articulated goals and performance metrics, agreed upon by board members democratically. That she did not have that environment was unjust. They didn’t have to tell her directly that they didn’t want her to lead the district. The tacit message was enough…”

Theresa Peña (no relation to Federico), who served with Merida, and who helped coordinate the weekend letter, said one need only follow board meetings to see how the body has been flailing, directionless for the past year. While passing resolutions to create transgender restrooms and remove police officers from high schools was popular in some quarters, such one-offs don’t amount to strategy, Peña said.

What a high-functioning board should do, Peña said, is set clear strategy, direction and expectations, develop measurement metrics for the superintendent, and hold her accountable for hitting those targets. Leave the running of the district to the paid professionals.

It is entirely the board’s prerogative, Peña said, to set a strategy that includes a heavy emphasis on neighborhood schools and less focus on innovation and charters. In other words, the board can change the district’s direction without trying to manage the organization by committee.

Appearing on the Brother Jeff Fard podcast earlier this year, board member Tay Anderson said that he wanted the board to “change our policy governance standing to be more of a Board of Education that is really managing the district not just advising the district.”

The Colorado Association of School Boards gave the Denver board a presentation on the merits of policy governance earlier this month, so let’s see if he and his colleagues now have a deeper understanding of the issues at play.

Apparently he is not alone in that sentiment among his colleagues. If that attitude toward governance persists, good luck finding a strong leader to serve as superintendent.

UPDATED here: Has Anderson’s thinking changed since July? here’s what he told me in an email he sent Nov. 24:

“I want the Board of Education to be able to vote on decisions that impact the district as a whole, not a snow day, as that would be too much micro management. When we are deciding key COVID decisions the school board should vote on it to hold ourselves accountable to our communities. We can not have a system where decisions are being made that the board will have to answer to, but did not vote on. I would look at Aurora Public Schools for example to see the way they have voted on key COVID plans. I will be circling back with CASB to talk more around other governance styles.”

I also asked Anderson why on Facebook he described the letter from 14 former board members as “bullshit.” His response:

“Today on Brother Jeff’s (Facebook Live) show some of the women that signed this letter (former board members Mary Seawell, Theresa Peña and Andrea Merida) were on and could not provide concrete evidence to support their claims of a hostile work environment, discrimination based on race and gender, and disrespectful behavior from the Board to Susana. I am super frustrated that these Former School Board Directors, Mayor Peña, and Mayor Hancock did NOT come to the Board of Education to have conversations on this manner. They decided to stir the pot and cause drama amongst our communities. This has led to the School Board being forced to answer to unsubstantiated claims and not focus all of our energy on re-opening our schools and laying out the process for the interim leader and the next Superintendent search.”

You can watch Brother Jeff’s conversation with Seawell, Peña and Merida here. Judge for yourself whether they provided evidence.

Peña and her fellow signatories believe this moment of crisis presents an opportunity for the board to reset and get its governance act in order. Let’s hope the board seizes that opportunity. 

Otherwise, the cycle of dysfunction — superintendent hirings, firings, and flat to declining student achievement — will become DPS’ new normal.