What It Means To Flip The Board That Oversees Denver Public Schools
In 2006, Michael Bennet, then the newly appointed superintendent of Denver Public Schools, in full embrace of the top-down national movement known as education reform, shuttered Manual High School.
What has become the catch-phrase “education reform” is a market-based system that seeks competition between schools, embraces co-locations and school closures as remedies for “failing schools.” Its supporters promote charter schools and alternative methods of certifying teachers, and evaluating students, teachers and schools based on student performance on standardized tests.
Money, both from inside and outside Colorado, has poured into systems and organizations to push data, collect and analyze it.
A January 2007 New Yorker article made Bennet the focus in a story on the closure of Manual High School – crafting Bennet as the poster child for Denver’s reform movement. The article was written by Katherine Boo, a personal friend of Bennet’s brother, the journalist James Bennet.
By portraying the superintendent as going door-to-door to reclaim the 558 students left in the lurch by the closure of Manual, in north Denver, Boo made Bennet the personal hero and savior of our schools. She made the story about him. Little is known about how – 12 years later – most of those students have fared.
Deals and appointments
Another story, however, was taking place at the headquarters of Colorado’s largest school district. In 2008 Bennet and Tom Boasberg, then chief operating officer for DPS, persuaded the board of education to embark on a financial deal with a variable interest rate as a fix to the district’s underfunded pension fund.
In August, 2010, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Gretchen Morgenson documented the transactions in a New York Times story titled “Exotic Deals Put Denver Schools Deeper In Debt.” The story detailed how the deal had been profitable for the banks, but not for Denver taxpayers. That misguided decision has impacted Denver’s educational budget every year for more than a decade and will continue until 2038.
The year before, then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter had appointed Bennet to the U.S. Senate. At the time of the appointment, there had not been much public vetting of the “exotic” financial deal that Morgenson later detailed.
When he was appointed to the Senate, Bennet successfully encouraged the school board to replace him with his childhood friend, Boasberg – the man who had been instrumental in the pension refinance deal.
Boasberg proceeded to aggressively further the reforms that were launched by Bennet. He did this until he stepped down from his position a decade later, in 2018.
Outcries came from those who were unhappy with the changes brought about by these education reforms. But they often seemed like lone voices, sometimes standing singly on a street corner, protesting. They were hushed by a loud public relations machine advancing the reform agenda. In turn, most media outlets in Denver amplified the pro-reform PR message.
Boasberg published a weekly newsletter titled My DPS. His attempt to make it personal belied the fact that he neither lived in Denver nor sent his children to DPS schools. But his message was consistent: reforms were successful and needed to continue to give more students the opportunities needed for their futures.
Boasberg was supported by the group A+ Denver (now A+ Colorado), which was founded in 2006 at Bennet’s urging. Boasberg was supported by the group Democrats for Education Reform, and many other national pro-reform groups.
Money, from both local and outside sources, poured into Denver to keep the reform agenda moving forward and to tell its story.
A powerful documentary series, Standing in the Gap, was produced in 2015 by Rocky Mountain PBS, chronicling and glorifying the reform narrative in Denver. Funded in part by the Gates Family Foundation and the Piton Foundation, the series included the voices of the usual suspects advocating for reform – including Boasberg and former and current board members Theresa Peña, Nate Easley, Landri Taylor and Barbara O’Brien. Also appearing were parents associated with the pro-reform group Stand for Children – but not identified as such. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who crafted Senate Bill-191 that evaluates teachers based on student performance, had a role, along with Patrick Hamill of Oakwood Homes (interestingly the series did not highlight the fact that Hamill had given at least $18,000 to pro-reform school board election candidates in 2013).
The documentary was artfully crafted to elevate these individuals and their roles in Denver’s social and educational fabric. But little was said about the city’s achievement gap between whites and students of color, which was steadily increasing.
Not represented in that documentary were those displaced by school closings, those who opposed high-stakes testing, those who continued to wait their turn to have their designated three minutes to address the board with their grievances.
The resistance was silenced.
Election night 2019
On Nov. 5, those voices were heard. In a stunning shock to the reform movement, none of their candidates won in three open school board races. The election was not without its controversies, as non-reform activists advocated for different candidates in three-way races and feared splitting the vote. But final results were a decisive blow to the reform movement.
Of seven elected board members, pro-reform officers have held a majority on the board since 2009. That was the year Nate Easley, after he was elected, reversed his pro-neighborhood platform and supported the pro-reform agenda. The teachers’ union, which had supported him, was betrayed.
This year, newly elected board directors include Scott Baldermann who won the District 1 seat representing southeast Denver. Brad Laurvick, was declared the victor to represent District 5 in northwest Denver.
Tay Anderson won the at-large seat to replace the term-limited Allegra “Happy” Haynes. At 21, Anderson is a recent graduate of Manual High School – which was reopened in 2007. He is the youngest elected official in Colorado’s history.
All three winning candidates were backed by the teachers’ union.
Chances for change
For Mia Anderson, this election was personal. She voted for the first time ever, for her son.
This election was also personal for many others. For families affiliated with Manual, now co-located with a McAuliffe middle school and in danger of being closed again, it was a vote of support for their school and community. More than 50 schools have been impacted by closures. In Park Hill that has included Smiley Middle School, Philips Elementary and Roots Elementary.
For the parents who have wanted to send their children to a neighborhood school but could not because their neighborhood school has been closed, or put in a larger enrollment zone, this was their chance to ask for change.
For Hasira Ashemu, who has been spearheading education and social activism and who stepped up to help rescue Denver Discovery School when DPS threatened to shutter it last spring, it was personal.
For activists Brandon Pryor and Gabe Lindsay, who repeatedly went to the board on a monthly basis to explain that students in the Far Northeast were being treated inequitably because of policies put into place by DPS, Nov. 5 was a redeeming night. For Pryor, whose seven-year old son was handcuffed in his school last year, it was especially personal.
For the thousands of teachers who in February walked out of their classrooms and onto the picket line wearing T-shirts emblazoned “red for ed,” it was incredibly personal. The teachers lost three days’ worth of wages to make a statement about their profession, advocating for salaries that reflect their true and hard work. But the general outcry was more profound. Students and parents joined the striking teachers, and the personal became communal. A call to flip the board took flight.
Education reform left a trail of collateral damage, especially impacting communities of color.
On Nov. 5, voters in Denver stepped-up to say, no more.
The pendulum swings
When Boasberg stepped down in 2018 for personal reasons, he may have been reading the writing on the wall. Since his departure (Boasberg is now the superintendent of the Singapore American School, a private school in Singapore), the reform movement in Denver has steadily receded as being the star of the schoolyard.
For the newly-elected board members and those remaining – Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián, Barbara O’Brien and Carrie Olson – it was a vote that carried the voices of those who have called for more equity, better resourced schools, stronger community involvement, financial transparency, respect for teachers and students, more thoughtful student evaluations, choice that is fair, and strong neighborhood schools.
Our personal stories are now in their hands. Godspeed.
Lynn Kalinauskas, the author of this opinion column, is the education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.
The following are links to the stories referenced in her column:
The New Yorker, Jan. 8, 2007: Expectations – Can the students who became a symbol of failed reform be rescued? newyorker.com/magazine/2007/01/15/expectationse
New York Times, Aug. 5, 2010:
Exotic Deals Put Denver Schools Deeper in Debt nytimes.com/2010/08/06/ business/06denver.html?dbk