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A breath of fresh air: Here are some quick wins for new Denver school board

A child with arms spread wide inhaling deeply under a partly cloudy sky

When Denver’s three new school board members are sworn in at 8 a.m. Friday morning Dec. 1, they will have an opportunity to deliver some quick wins to demonstrate to a disgruntled public that the board’s way of doing business will fundamentally change going forward.

While it’s not unusual for newly elected officials to want to make a mark, in this case doing so is essential to begin restoring confidence in a school district that has lost the trust of its community.

It’s important to note that these three members do not constitute a majority on a seven-person board. To make significant changes in direction will require winning over at least one incumbent on every issue.

The least intractable incumbent likely would be Carrie Olson, entering her last two years in office. A former teacher who knows how to listen, Olson has grown and evolved in the job over time. But to win her over on at least some issues, the new board members need to approach her with respect and delicacy.

Photo of three new school board members standing with their arms waound each other'sshoulders
Kimberlee Sia, John Youngquist, and Marlene De La Rosa. Photo courtesy of Craig Peña

It could make sense for the three new members, Marlene De La Rosa, John Youngquist, and Kimberlee Sia, to support Olson’s bid for the board presidency. She served ably in that role for two years during Covid. If her new colleagues back her, it would build significant goodwill.

Though some community members might complain that naming a member of the highly unpopular previous board as president sends the wrong signal, I believe the opposite is true. Though Olson did not often enough push back against the excesses of some of her colleagues, here heart is in the right place. And compromise is the lifeblood of politics.

The easiest quick win for the new board members would be reversing the recent abysmal decision to limit public comment sessions to two hours. Until this fall, board members would sit and listen (with varying degrees of attentiveness) to as many people who signed up with a bone to pick with the district, regardless of how long the session lasted. Each person had three minutes to talk.

Limiting monthly public comment to two hours was an insult to the community and a clear example of prioritizing board member convenience over the basic responsibilities of the job. I assume Olson or some incumbent would join the new three in overturning this at the first business meeting of the reconstituted board.

While lifting the time limits on public comment won’t fix student achievement, school safety, or any of the other daunting challenges DPS faces, it would send a clear message that this board will be less arrogant and insular off than its predecessor.

A few other issues that need to be addressed quickly might be more challenging to build consensus around. The first is setting up a real process for evaluating the job performance of Superintendent Alex Marrero. The recently released evaluation was a joke, and an insult to the intelligence of DPS’ customer base.

DPS has failed to recover in any meaningful way from the learning losses caused by the lengthy shutdowns of in-person schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Opportunity gaps remain enormous. The previous board and district leadership seem to be focused on everything but this central issue. 

The new board should set a 60- or 90-day deadline for Marrero to come up with a plan to address this issue, with specific, measurable benchmarks to hit between now and the end of the school year.

The same should go for devising a plan to deal with school safety. The board needs to order the district to go back to the drawing board to redesign the so-called discipline matrix. 

Yes, it is essential to put the rights of students facing discipline front and center. But the current matrix is weighted so heavily toward protecting those students that it neglects to take into account the safety of the vast majority of students who show up every day ready to learn and in need of a safe and secure environment in which to do so.

The board must also insist that Marrero come up with a workable plan for school consolidations and closures. The influx of migrants and refugees from the southern border could potentially confound calculations based on anticipated enrollment declines, so this work is timely and essential.

The board will have to demonstrate collective courage and make tough decisions on closures without deferring to community consensus, which will never exist when it comes to closing schools. The previous board shirked this responsibility. To his credit, Marrero tried to address this issue, but the board rebuffed him.

A normally functioning school board would immediately begin addressing some of these issues. The new board will have to get to work from day one.

There is no time to waste.