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Non-evaluation of Denver superintendent raises questions

Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed by minutiae and lose track of the bigger picture, and that seems to be the case with the 2022 non-evaluation of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero.

I’ll get into a bit of the minutiae momentarily, but here’s the bottom line: After 15 months on the job, Marrero has not been evaluated by his employers, who, by the way, gave him a contract extension for no apparent reason 10 months ago. 

The school board has sought no community input on his performance, and it will be another year before the board is supposed to take a serious, data-driven look at his performance.

A year from now is just weeks before the next school board election. That’s bound to play a role in that evaluation, including how, when, and whether it’s released.

The board met in executive session for several hours Wednesday, and at the conclusion accepted Marrero’s monitoring reports and self-evaluation as a stand-in for a more robust, multi-perspective assessment of how well he’s fulfilling his duties running the state’s largest school district. That evaluation has not yet been released, but should be by early next week.

Board member Scott Baldermann, who is steeped in the details of policy governance and is a self-professed data geek, said Marrero’s first year had been “fantastic” as the board and Marrero’s team transitioned to a system of policy governance. But he offered no data to back up that assessment of Marrero’s first year-plus.

What we do know from state testing is that coming out of the pandemic, the majority of DPS students lost ground and are farther behind grade level than they were in 2019. I’m not blaming Marrero for that, but ignoring the current state of the district seems unhealthy at best.

The district says it will use 2022 testing data as part of the baseline from which it will measure future progress. That makes sense to an extent, but whatever happened to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now?” Is 15 months really too little time for the board and community to have formed an impression of Marrero’s leadership?

It’s instructive to contrast this process with the evaluation ordeal the previous school board put former Superintendent Susana Cordova through in 2020. At that point, Cordova had been superintendent for 19 months, during which she navigated a teachers strike and the early days of the pandemic.

Despite those overwhelming challenges, the board cut her no slack. They sought broad community input and then issued a tough evaluation that essentially gave her a ‘C’ for her performance. People can argue this point endlessly, but I’m not alone in believing that she viewed the evaluation as an insult, and that it played a role in her resignation three months later.

The evaluation was accompanied by an 18-page “Stakeholder Feedback and Insights Report.” The current board must not have read it, because the very first words are: “The DPS Superintendent annual performance evaluation is an important process and is enhanced when it includes the feedback and insights from a variety of stakeholders.”

OK, minutiae time. 

Under the Board of Education’s Policy Governance framework, the superintendent is to be evaluated based upon how well he delivers on what is called the board’s ends policies or statements (the two terms seem to be used interchangeably). 

There are six ends statements, focused on equity, teaching and learning, student and staff well-being, health and safety, post-graduation and global citizenship, and climate action. Each of these six areas includes a multitude of goals against which Marrero can be measured. Monthly monitoring reports Marrero submits are supposed to act as benchmarks toward progress.

Many of the monitoring reports to date state that 2022 is the year for establishing baselines, which means, as far as I can tell, they can’t be used for evaluation because there’s no basis for comparison. Data from 2019 is pre-Covid, so it’s understandable why the board would not want to evaluate Marrero based on slippage during the pandemic.

But passing on any kind of evaluation or public statement beyond accepting his own assessment of his performance after he’s been on the job for 15 months? That seems like an abrogation of responsibility.

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson cast the only vote against accepting the self-evaluation. He told me this week that given the recent controversies over a trademark dispute with students and a state report showing Black male students have been unfairly funneled into special education programs, the public should have had an opportunity to weigh in on the district and Marrero before the board accepted his self-evaluation.

In an online post, he stressed that his vote was not a slap at Marrero, but rather at the process.

“This is not a rubber-stamp exercise. Let’s do better and be better for our students, employees, and communities because they deserve much more from this board,” Anderson wrote.

Amen to that.