UPDATED: Groups urge board to focus on community, not politics in superintendent search

A consortium of parents and education advocacy groups held a pandemic-era Zoom press conference Sunday to demand that the Denver school board look past political agendas and include community input as it looks to hire a new superintendent.

Current Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova announced Friday that she is leaving the district, where she has worked for more than 30 years, to become a deputy superintendent in the Dallas Independent School District.

Speakers Sunday paid tribute to Cordova’s compassion, her focus on community concerns, and her deep roots in the city and the district. They said Cordova fell victim to politics and wasn’t given a fair shot by at least some members of the school board. 

Some speakers said it will be challenging for the majority-Latino district to find another bilingual Latino superintendent with such deep ties to the community.

“I want to take an opportunity to express my gratitude for and send my love to Susana,” said former DPS teacher, principal and instructional superintendent Jesus Rodriguez, who now heads the Bueno Center for Multicultural Education at CU Boulder. “Her impact runs deep, and we will be challenged to find another leader who brings the unique gifts that Susana did for 30-plus years.”

Vernon Jones, executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, said Cordova’s departure means that a mutually agreed-upon agenda remains unfilled. “It is a great loss to our city, it is a great loss to those of us who are engaged in this work to see Susana go to Dallas,” Jones said. “It is a great loss for our city for us to not be able to care and support the first Latina superintendent that we’ve ever had in Denver Public Schools. It is a great loss to many of us who professionally were grinding with Susana to see the world that we believe possible.”

Former school board member Happy Haynes urged the current board to focus on student needs rather than political agendas as it seeks a new superintendent. “We must move forward to do what’s best for DPS students and understand that a superintendent must be given the opportunity to lead rather than be micromanaged or forced to spend time on divisive political agenda.”

“To my colleagues currently serving our students on the board: we know there is much difficult work to do to improve outcomes for all our kids. But it would be tragic to walk away from successful strategies to improve the outcomes for thousands of students because of political fights among adults and the anger towards previous school administrations.”

While Cordova is exiting graciously, it’s clear that leaving Denver isn’t something she decided to do lightly, several speakers said.

“The elephant in the room is that Susana was pushed out by the board, and…as a community member, I think we need to focus on that because it’s not going to change if we don’t address this issue with the board,” said Alicia Avila, A DPS grandparent and substitute teacher. “It’s beyond me how the very board that was supposed to support her and encourage her and have her back didn’t (do any of those things).”

Joanna Rosa Saenz, a community organizer in Northwest Denver and a DPS parent, offered some searing words to the board, and a couple of its members in particular.

“I am very concerned about whether some members of the elected board of education are putting children or politics first,” Saenz said. She said board members Brad Laurvick and Scott Baldermann received hefty donations from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, and as a result, focus their attention on paying the union back and “cowering to special interests.”

UPDATE: Saenz is incorrect regarding Baldermann. He was endorsed by the DCTA but self-funded his campaign.

“It is deeply concerning that the majority white political organization and their puppets on the board are likely the reason our first Latina superintendent is leaving her hometown and the district where has worked for over 31 years,” Saenz said. “This city elected privileged white men who have no vision and have made it so difficult for this district to function that our superintendent was pushed out by the dysfunction of this board.”