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Marrero’s $100,000 corner office: Long live the hierarchy!

If you’re seeking a perfect encapsulation of the reign of Alex Marrero as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, look no farther than his decision to spend nearly $100,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a soundproofed corner office.

This move takes the more egalitarian philosophy that drove district management for the previous decade and flips it on its head. And to what end? Is it that Marrero’s ego demands space befitting his station? Or perhaps the emperor who has no clothes now has a better chance to hide that fact from his underlings?

One benefit of having been around DPS as long as I have is historical perspective. So here is a brief history lesson.

When DPS moved its headquarters from the mausoleum-like 900 Grant Street to 1860 Lincoln Street more than a decade ago, then-Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his leadership team put a lot of time and thought into the design of the new, high-rise space.

The idea that drove them was creating a work environment that reflected the district’s values. This meant a space that was more collegial and non-hierarchical than had been the case at the old headquarters.

All private offices, including the superintendent’s, were designed to be the same, compact size. They had doors for privacy, but no exterior windows. Natural light streaming in through the windows was viewed as a common good rather than an entitlement of the exalted few.

When difficult conversations became necessary, former district leaders found a closed door to be sufficient insulation from prying ears.

There were no anterooms to insulate leaders from the main flow of traffic along hallways.

The one exception to this uniform office design was the legal team, who had more cloistered offices because of the sometimes sensitive nature of their work.

While some organizational leaders, including the current occupant of the new corner office, might find frequent, casual daily interactions with lower-ranking employees troublesome or even uncomfortable, that was precisely the idea behind this intentional design. Bumping into someone in a corridor could lead to a quick conversation that sparked an idea that led to something significant.

Windows offering sweeping views of the skyline and the mountains beyond were reserved for common spaces and conference rooms, which were open to all. Staffers who worked in cubicles – the vast majority of district employees – generally had as much square footage as those who had offices.

If, as legendary architect Louis H. Sullivan said, form should follow function, then the design of the space at 1860 Lincoln sent a clear message to staff. We are all in this together, serving the children of Denver. Your leaders value you and your work, and are open to hearing your ideas. 

Those leaders aren’t going to use their position to grab goodies for themselves. They leave their egos at the front door.

Now consider the message sent by spending almost $100,000 to deconstruct this philosophy. The corner office with a bank of windows looking over downtown and the soundproofing all but scream: ”Stay away. I have no time for the likes of you. And what happens behind that door is none of your damned business.”

I guess none of us should be surprised by this. Given the vindictiveness and insularity that have characterized the Marrero regime, we should be thankful that architects couldn’t figure out how to build a gator-filled moat around the office.

Here’s a more immediate concern. Defenders of the project might well say that $100,000 is a drop in the bucket of a $1 billion-plus organization. Perhaps that’s true, but Marrero dropped those dollars in the wrong bucket.

Talking to school leaders who dealt last school year with the enormous challenges posed by an unprecedented and unanticipated surge in migrant students, one quickly realizes how precious each one of those dollars is, and how well they might have been spent serving students with enormous needs.

Here are just a couple of examples.

Because many migrant students are so far below grade level (many are reading at fourth- or fifth-grade level in high school), they are in need of intensive academic catch up. Hiring interventionists to work with these students is something schools have lacked the budget flexibility to do.

Many of these students lived through traumatic experiences on their journey to the U.S., but in many schools there are 250 students per mental health worker. Hiring an additional worker would make a huge difference.

Talk to principals and you’ll hear a lot more ideas of how the corner-office money could have been better spent.

The district might point out that bond funds went to the office (and another few hundred thousand for school board flex space) construction. That money couldn’t be used to hire staff.

But given that DPS is asking voters this fall for another $975 million bond issue, that’s an argument they’d be wise to avoid making.