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Denver superintendent describes his turbulent relationship with Brandon Pryor

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero detailed Friday in federal court how his relationship with DPS critic Brandon Pryor went from friendly to antagonistic over recent months leading up to the district’s ban of Pryor from schools.

Marrero recalled that Pryor originally “actively tried to hurt my candidacy” as superintendent in 2021, preferring another candidate to head the 88,000-student Denver Public Schools. But a week after he started last July, he met with Pryor, gave him his personal cell phone number and invited him to a Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop concert at Red Rocks.

“We had an amicable relationship,” Marrero recalled.

For his part, Pryor posted a photo of himself and Marrero at the concert with a message, “We had an incredible time.”

When the school board voted a year ago to extend Marrero’s contract until 2026, Pryor spoke out at the meeting supporting the superintendent because of his engagement with the Black community and public support for the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, where Pryor is a co-founder.

This year, however, their relationship deteriorated. Pryor clashed with several administrators over a range of issues, many involving what he has described as their lack of support for STEAM Academy. For instance, he advocated for a new building with higher student capacity, a library, a better kitchen and athletic facility.

Several administrators lodged complaints of being bullied, harassed, intimated or threatened by Pryor over many months, leading Marrero in October to authorize that Pryor be banned from school board meetings, coaching, volunteering and school grounds that his children don’t attend (DPS last month eased the ban to allow Pryor to attend board meeting and public events at schools, but he remains banned from STEAM Academy and coaching).

“There was a progression (of complaints) to get to this level,” said Marrero, who is one of the defendants in Pryor’s lawsuit against the district. “This should not have caught him by surprise.”

Attorney Samantha Lorraine Pryor then showed the superintendent a December 2015 district policy memo outlining the protocol and procedures of imposing restrictions on parents. The policy read in part: “Under no circumstances should letters of restriction to schools be used in place of conflict resolution or to retaliate against a parent/guardian.”

Samantha Pryor pressed Marrero on why he did not apply this procedure and go to conflict resolution before imposing the ban. Marrero said he was not aware whether conflict resolution was attempted but that the DPS general counsel and human resources staff had overseen investigations of Pryor’s conduct after the complaints were made, and the superintendent approved the ban in the interests of protecting school and staff safety.

The ban letter was written by General Counsel Aaron Thompson. He testified after Marrero and echoed why the district took such a drastic step.

“Brandon Pryor is well known to a lot of people in the district … for his pattern of harassing and bullying conduct,” Thompson said.

He cited the findings of two investigations as “catalysts” for the ban. One involved a harassment complaint last year against Pryor from Antoinette Hudson, then the regional instructional superintendent for far Northeast Denver schools, and the other from a complaint by Montbello High School Principal Neisa Lynch.

Thompson wrote in the ban letter to Pryor: “The district does not make this decision lightly, and has based its decision on a long pattern of conduct directed at district staff. Unfortunately, the sum of your behaviors has led the district to believe this is the only response to you and your behaviors, and is not based on an any isolated incident but on your pattern of threating and bullying behavior.”

The hearing continues next week. After more testimony, U.S. District Judge John Kane will determine whether to lift the ban as a free speech violation or rule that the district is justified in continuing restrictions against Pryor.