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Unpopular DPS board further walls itself off from the public

It is sadly predictable that in the same week a bipartisan poll of likely voters showed widespread disaffection with the Denver school board, that same board decided to severely curtail the public’s one monthly opportunity to provide it with in-person feedback.

Without a vote, the board announced last week that its monthly public comment sessions would, for the time being, be limited to two hours. Until now, public comment has lasted as long as it took to allow every person who signed up to have their say. 

Board members are going to draft a policy over the next undefined period of time to set permanent limits. But it seems unlikely at best that whatever policy emerges will return to giving the public as much time as it needs to plead various cases before this imperious board.

“I think it’s important that we set these reasonable time restrictions because we’ve gone on for hours upon hours and we really need to consider that we respect each other’s time while respecting the time of our staff, other volunteers, and other community members that come to public comment and have to stay very, very long hours,” board President Xochitl Gaytán said during a work session last week.

Look, I get it. I’m sure it’s no fun to sit for hour after hour and receive hot, redundant feedback about your actions, with no opportunity to respond. I tend to lose interest after a while watching from home. 

But Gaytán’s rationale falls flat. Board members are public officials and stewards of public dollars. District staff are public servants. This means the public should have access to them, and public comment has been the best opportunity for people from all walks of life to have their say.

If that means one late night a month, so be it. Suck it up, board.

Denver Public Schools board members have not been subjected to right-wing harangues about Critical Race Theory and “woke mobs,” as has occurred elsewhere across the country, sometimes creeping dangerously close to the edge of violence. So it’s not as though board members need insulation or protection from gun-toting zealots.

Previous actions by this board leave it with no benefit of the doubt. This is the same board and administration, after all, that tried to ban vociferous critic Brandon Pryor from board meetings, because…why, exactly? He hurt their feelings? That clumsy move was slapped down by a federal judge as an egregious violation of Pryor’s rights.

It’s little wonder, then, that public confidence in the board is at a low ebb. Last week’s poll showed that 55 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the board, while just 22 percent viewed the panel favorably. Only 24 percent said the quality of education children are receiving is good or excellent, compared to 48 percent who rated the quality of schools as fair or poor.

Some will attempt to dismiss the poll because it skewed disproportionately older, white, and affluent. But remember, this was a poll of likely voters, and that’s exactly who tends to vote. It might not represent the sentiments of the larger, general public (though I suspect it does), but it certainly has implications for November’s election.

The clear message here is that incumbents running for reelection – Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsey –  ought to be very nervous. Even though neither of them has been involved in the board’s most egregious episodes of dysfunction, they have pushed and supported some unpopular decisions, like the curtailing of innovation zones.

The poll shows that public engagement in the election is low. No candidate running for the citywide seat being vacated by Auon’tai Adnerson polled higher than 5 percent, with 87 percent undecided. 

But I’m willing to wager that turnout for this election will be higher than for any board election in recent history. People tend not to pay much attention to public school policymaking bodies. But it’s hard not to be aware of the role this board has played in severely tarnishing DPS’ local and national reputation. 

Curtailing public comment is just the latest insult the school board has dealt the people of Denver. And I’d wager that’s going to be reflected at the ballot box less than two months from now.