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Kurt Dennis firing shows DPS is rotting from the top down

When historians look back at the infelicitous reign of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero and the “union supermajority” school board, they will perhaps cite the sacking of McAuliffe International Middle School Principal Kurt Dennis as the moment that spelled the beginning of the end of this dark period.

Let’s hope so.

While the district is trying to frame the firing as the removal of a principal who violated federal privacy law and meted out discipline disproportionately to kids of color, that sounds like putting a politically palatable veneer over a load of BS.

Despite pointed statements from district leadership to the contrary, it certainly appears that Dennis was fired for being a whistleblower by an administration that wants everyone marching lockstep. Questioning authority will not be tolerated.

Dennis courageously went public in March, shortly after the shooting of two East High School deans by a student they were patting down, telling 9News his staff was being ordered to follow the same unsafe procedures, for which they were untrained. 

Dennis wanted a student who had been accused of attempted murder removed from his school, but was told repeatedly by district leadership that the student had a right to be there, and that school administrators should do pat-downs. That didn’t sit well with him.

If Dennis’ record of disciplining students of color at McAuliffe is another reason for his dismissal, as his termination letter says, then many other DPS principals should be shown the door as well. Disproportionate discipline is a district-wide and, in fact, a nationwide problem, one that has been with us for as long as we have had public schools.

McAuliffe International Middle School parent John Moore vents his frustration over the firing of Principal Kurt Dennis at a community forum July 15 (Photo for Boardhawk by Alan Gottlieb)

It’s worth noting that under Dennis’s leadership McAuliffe has had a strong record, relative to DPS as a whole, of boosting the achievement of students of color. When 2022-23 state test score data is released soon, it will show that McAuliffe students of color perform markedly better than their peers in other DPS middle schools in both math and English Language Arts.

Before DPS stopped caring about data a couple of years ago and eliminated its School Performance Framework, McAuliffe – under Dennis’s leadership – was one of 10 schools (out of more than 200) that was rated distinguished for equity.

There have been complaints from some community members that this firing has gained such a high profile because Dennis is white and ran a school where 58 percent of the students are white. School leaders of color have been fired at high rates over the past couple of decades, they say, and the media has largely ignored these cases.

They make a valid point. But rather than using this fact to minimize the significance of Dennis’ firing, let’s take this opportunity to shine a bright light on DPS’ history of disproportionate dismissals and pressure the district and board to develop policies and procedures to put an end to such practices.

Marrero denied that the firing was in any way retaliatory in a letter to the McAuliffe community, saying Dennis was fired as “a result of several concerns including his sharing private student information in a manner the District believes violated the law and District policy.” 

In the termination letter, DPS says the information Dennis provided 9News “allowed the reporter, the student’s peers and the larger McAuliffe International community to ascertain that the information you provided to Channel 9News was about (the student), causing the student to be singled out by faculty and staff and ostracized by his peers.”

But watching the interview, it is hard to see where any confidential information was disclosed. People inside McAuliffe have told me that the student in question has not been identified, singled out, or ostracized. One person characterized the district’s allegations as “straight-up lies.”

In fact, principals routinely communicate with their communities about safety issues, providing information at least as revealing as what Dennis told 9News. See this letter to the Northfield High School community, for example. The principal revealed as much identifiable student information (almost none) as Dennis did. Yet she faced no discipline.

Dennis told me he went public for a simple reason: to protect his community. 

“If you’re going to have safe schools, there’s got to be transparency. There has to be a safe space in which people can share their concerns. If you block dissent issues are going to get swept under the rug and then things are going to happen. You have to have a culture of trust and transparency and open communication in order to be effective in keeping kids safe.”

A McAuliffe International Middle School student talks about the turmoil caused by the firing of Principal Kurt Dennis at a community forum July 15. (Photo for Boardhawk by Alan Gottlieb)

The timing of Dennis’s firing is also highly questionable and puts McAuliffe in a tough spot with school starting in just a few weeks. 

“The timing of the dismissal is punitive, not so much to myself but to my community, the kids and staff,” Dennis said. “They deserve better than this. If  DPS really wanted to get rid of me they could have done it in the spring and provided time for a leadership team to put together a transition plan that was thoughtful, and that set everybody up for success. But instead, they waited until early July to do this.”

To be specific, the firing became public on July 3, in the middle of a four-day holiday weekend. This blatant attempt to bury controversial news backfired, big-time.

The way in which Dennis was fired appears to be a massive human resources blunder, which could help him in the lawsuit he is expected to file against the district soon. On the same day he received his termination letter, Dennis received another official letter, also dated July 3, this one from the district Human Resources Department, outlining the same concerns contained in the termination letter.

If this was intended as a warning or corrective action letter, then why wasn’t it sent weeks earlier?

I attended a community forum Saturday at Manual High School, organized by board Vice-President Auon’tai Anderson. While Anderson said to the 75-plus people in attendance that he disapproved of Dennis going to 9News, he said he had an open mind about whether he will vote in favor of the firing at the board’s Aug. 24 meeting.

Regardless, Anderson told the crowd, the Dennis firing is just the latest in a long series of distractions that takes the board and district off-mission

“DPS has enough issues already that this should not be one of the issues that we’re talking about,” he said. “I would love for us to be sitting here with folks talking about can kids read at grade level, can kids do math at grade level, are all of our kids being fed do we have wraparound services.

“We consistently get blindsided by distractions instead of putting our kids first and this is just another distraction for me as a board member and I’m just fed up with it.”

Dennis wants his job back. Even if the board votes not to accept his firing, Marrero does not have to return him to McAuliffe, and he would be guaranteed district employment for only one year.

Two years in, the direction of the district under this administration and board couldn’t be clearer. The combination of ineptitude and internal intimidation makes for a toxic brew.

Heads should roll. Kurt Dennis’s is not one of them.