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New DPS board members must push for a real, external evaluation of Marrero

A conversation at last week’s Denver school board meeting about how district leaders receive feedback on their job performance was frustrating in the extreme to watch. I imagine it was also frustrating to the three newest board members.

But it might also have provided an eventual way forward and out of the conundrum created by the wall of protection in the guise of “policy governance” that the board majority has built around Superintendent Alex Marrero. 

That way out would be a 360 evaluation of the superintendent. More on that in a moment.

To make this happen would require the three new board members to start pushing back harder against the protective wall than they have shown a willingness to do so far.

I wrote in April about how Marrero has narrowed the scope of Denver Public Schools’ longstanding CollaboRATE survey so that he and his central team now receive feedback only from their direct reports on their job performance. Previous superintendents invited feedback from all of the district’s central office staff and school principals as well, then shared the results publicly.

Under the guise of efficiency and relevance that is a thin mask for insecurity, Marrero has left school leaders with no safe avenue in a toxic and vindictive organizational culture for airing their grievances. I described Marrero’s move as managing like an ostrich, and I’m sticking with that description.

At the May 16 board meeting, board member John Youngquist gently probed Marrero about the change, asking why principals now receive broader feedback than the superintendent does. Marrero gave an answer that I would politely describe as gobbledy-gook.

“We’ve heard consistently throughout our central folks that we do not have access to certain individuals considering the macro system of 17,000 employees. So for that reason, it was urged for me to consider to remove the direct or indirect feedback responses for central level administrators, so I did so,” Marrero said.

In other words, the exalted few atop DPS do not wish to hear from their underlings, who they mistakenly think are too far removed from daily contact with those anointed elites to understand the nuances of their complex responsibilities. In fact, it is precisely staff on the front lines who experience the negative impact of DPS leadership’s authoritarian approach to managing the district. 

Executive Limitation 12, “Employee Treatment,” describes CollaboRATE as: 

“…designed to provide all leaders with feedback to support continuous growth and improvement and to capture staff engagement and culture indicators. The survey consists of 3 parts: District Feedback, Team Member Engagement and Leader Feedback:

○ District Feedback asks specific questions about key initiatives and work happening across the district

○ Engagement measures employee satisfaction and engagement

○ Leader Feedback is an opportunity to provide feedback to your direct supervisor

Given that language, Marrero is in compliance with that portion of the executive limitation. When Youngquist asked when this language was adopted, he was told it was December 14 of last year.

As you might recall, at that meeting, the first of the new board members’ tenure, the three new members pleaded with their colleagues to hold off for a month on voting on EL 12 and several others until they had a chance to study them. Reams of complex material related to the vote hadn’t been posted or made available to them until a couple of days before the meeting.

Their requests were rebuffed, and the policies were adopted on a 4-3 vote. Those policies create a 2023-24 evaluation of Marrero that is so soft in its accountability measures that it’s almost inconceivable he won’t pass with flying colors, despite his uneven at best job performance. 

A 1% growth goal for student achievement?  Absurd by any conceivable standard, and heartbreaking when we look at the implications for Denver students.

Last week, board member Xóchitl Gaytán reminded Youngquist about that vote, and told him he had to honor it. “It was a majority vote. And therefore, those of us that did not vote for that, we have to accept it and move forward in one voice,” Gaytán said.

Youngquist replied that ‘it would be of value to the superintendent to hear from different levels of the organization, just as it is of value to principals to hear from different levels of their (schools).”

This is where a glimmer of hope appeared. Board member Michelle Quattlebaum said she agreed with Youngquist, but that making a change of that sort should happen in the superintendent’s future evaluations.

Quattlebaum suggested that perhaps a 360-degree evaluation of Marrero would be warranted as part of his board evaluation, though it’s too late to do that this year. 

A 360 evaluation is a comprehensive assessment process where an employee receives confidential, anonymous feedback from a variety of sources, including supervisors, peers, subordinates, and sometimes external stakeholders like customers.

Such an evaluation is a solid idea. By all means, the Denver school board should, as soon as possible, authorize a 360 evaluation of Marrero. I suspect it would open their eyes and force some action.

But for this to happen, the three new board members, who thus far have been polite and conciliatory to a fault, have to be willing to put more concerted, even pointed pressure on their colleagues to go along with the idea. If Quattlebaum indeed supports it, then four votes might already exist.

This fall’s superintendent evaluation will be a waste of everyone’s time. But it’s not too soon to start searching for a reputable, national organization to conduct the 360 evaluation. 

It won’t be cheap, but it’s likely to be worth every penny.