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DPS board’s old guard pushes through weak superintendent evaluation measures

Portrait of new Denver school board with Superintendent Alex Marrero, December 2023

Denver’s three new school board members got their first taste last Thursday of how challenging it will be to move Denver Public Schools in a new direction.

In the first monthly meeting of the newly configured board, the four returning board members forced approval on a 4-3 vote of a complex set of 25 documents that contain the underpinnings of Superintendent Alex Marrero’s 2024 evaluation.

Kimberlee Sia, Marlene De La Rosa, and John Youngquist pleaded with their colleagues to delay the vote for a month, because they had received the documents just 48 hours before the meeting. No district official briefed them on the contents of the documents. They were left to wade through the bewildering files on their own.

They argued, rightly, that there was no way for them to absorb such a massive amount of information and make an informed decision about it.

They were rebuffed – politely, at least –  by the veterans, who said the vote had already been postponed in October to give the new members a chance to weigh in on the evaluation criteria. They added that there was some sort of (unexplained) urgency to get the so-called reasonable interpretations (policy governance jargon) passed so that Marrero and his team wouldn’t be left in limbo any longer.

Never mind the fact that last year, the board didn’t vote on the reasonable interpretations until February, a fact no district official or returning board member bothered to mention to the newcomers.

What a joke, and what a classic case of setting up a no-win situation for the rookies. They almost certainly would have wanted to push for some changes to the evaluation criteria, which are filled with easy-to complete tasks and light on measurable outcomes. 

They include a lot of boxes for Marrero to check (completing a district calendar for example), but precious few meaningful data points.

And where the now-enshrined reasonable interpretations do include tangible goals, they set a pathetically low bar. Under “Teaching and Learning,” for example, Marrero set a goal for himself that has the number of students reading and doing math proficiently increasing by 1 percent next year as measured by state tests.

You read that correctly. One percent. That applies to all subgroups of students as well as the student body as a whole. It bears remembering that in DPS last year, 16 percent of Black students, and 13 percent of students who qualify for federally subsidized meals were proficient in math. Similarly, 24 percent of Latino students, 26.6 percent of Black students, and 22 percent of students who qualify for federally subsidized meals were proficient in reading.

Increasing those distressing numbers by one percent is a woefully unambitious goal.

The new members’ request to delay the vote to give them time to review the reasonable interpretations was more than reasonable. And, as De La Rosa pointed out, if quick passage was so crucial to the running of the district, why weren’t they adopted at the start of the school year? No one had a convincing answer to that question.

Why does all this matter? Because the board, under policy governance, will evaluate the superintendent next October based on the criteria laid out in these reasonable interpretations. If district students improve by 1 percent – by no means a slam dunk, given recent trends – Marrero will have met a key goal.

Let’s be clear. Despite DPS trumpeting far and wide Marrero being named superintendent of the year by District Administration Magazine last week, his superintendency has been far from a rousing success. He is not a broadly popular figure in Denver schools or in the broader community because of his top-down, at times autocratic management style. 

The three new board members were elected by overwhelming margins in large part to help hold Marrero and his staff accountable for the district’s manifest failure to perform its core tasks competently. 

That doesn’t mean showing Marrero the door, but it does mean the board should set some more meaningful and measurable goals for him to meet for the remainder of this school year and into the next. 

Now, however, the weak evaluation criteria set by Marrero and the old board will be the standard by which he is measured next fall.

Last Thursday’s unfortunate action by the holdover board members delays the return of meaningful accountability to the leadership of DPS. And, as usual, it is the city’s children who will pay the price.