Denver school board confirms Alex Marrero as next superintendent

Alex Marrero, standing outside on grass and wearing a mask, is surrounded by masked high school students listening to him talk.
The Denver school board on Thursday confirmed Alex Marrero as its next superintendent. Here he is seen meeting May 26 with South High School student government leaders. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Alex Marrero is Denver’s next superintendent after the school board voted 6 to 1 to confirm the 38-year-old bilingual educator from New York.

“My vote for Dr. Marrero is a vote for all of the priorities we heard as we created a forum for our community to lift up their hopes and their fears for our schools,” board President Carrie Olson said. “Dr. Marrero, I believe in your ability to inspire people and reinvest in a public school system where every child is seen and able to achieve their full potential.” 

Marrero will start July 6, taking the helm of Colorado’s largest school district as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and enters a new era of declining enrollment and new approaches to school oversight. 

Under a contract approved Thursday, Marrero will be paid $260,000 a year to start. That’s the same salary earned by the previous superintendent, Susana Cordova, and more than the $242,125 Tom Boasberg made when he left Denver Public Schools in 2018.

Marrero said the job is a dream come true for the child of a Cuban refugee and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who seemed destined to be another statistic.

“I am looking forward to collaborating and removing any barriers for students,” he said. “Unbeknownst to little Alexi, my own life experience has prepared me to lead this incredible district.”

At-large board member Barbara O’Brien voted no on the appointment and the contract. She said it gave her no pleasure, and she would do everything she could to help Marrero succeed.

But she believes Denver needs a more experienced leader. 

“I don’t think our process produced the kind of stellar applicants for superintendent of Denver Public Schools that we expected to get,” she said. “I think we should have someone with much more experience. To add the culture change that he will navigate coupled with the relative inexperience in running a district, I worry that Denver students and families will experience a superintendent with a huge learning curve.”  

Denver, Colorado’s largest school district with 90,000 students, is going through a transition. In addition to the grappling with fallout from the pandemic and demographic changes, the school board is changing how it approaches school improvement. The school board, which sets policy for the district, has moved away from past education reform strategies such as closing schools with low test scores, and has asked tough questions of the district’s independent charter schools.

Board members said they expect Marrero to take a collaborative rather than competitive approach to managing the district’s schools and tackle longstanding opportunity gaps between students of color and their white peers.

Marrero served as interim superintendent of the 10,400-student City School District of New Rochelle for the past eight months after the previous superintendent resigned. New Rochelle has similar demographics to Denver but is much smaller. Marrero was previously the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in New Rochelle and before that an assistant superintendent in East Ramapo, New York.

Marrero started his career as a guidance counselor and has said reducing the school-to-prison pipeline is a priority. He said he will hold all students to high standards and work to gain the confidence of the community. He has pledged to start his tenure with a listening tour and to include students and teachers in his decisions.

In explaining her yes vote, board member Angela Cobián talked about a time a guidance counselor helped her avoid getting into a fight after being called an ethnic slur. He helped her feel safe at school and avoid derailing her academic career.

“When I think about the fact that we’re going to have a guidance counselor turned superintendent lead our district, I think about the power you’re going to bring to our district, the power of compassion and the power of lived experiences,” she said.

A long list of Latino community groups repeatedly called on the school board to delay the vote. Even before Marrero was named as the preferred candidate among three finalists, the groups had raised concerns about the search process and the experience level of the candidates. 

Other community leaders have come out in support of Marrero, with Ron Cabrera, a longtime Hispanic educator and former interim Denver superintendent, pointing to his experience working with Marrero in the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.

“I know the importance, backed by research, of finding a champion for our underserved students, a leader who can be a role model for all our students, our parents, and our educational colleagues,” Cabrera said last week. “I believe Dr. Alex Marrero is that champion for us.”

Those with concerns said they grew more worried when Marrero was named in a lawsuit in his previous district in New Rochelle, New York, two days after Denver officials announced their intention to hire him. In the lawsuit filed in federal court, the former medical director accused a number of administrators and a school board member of sidelining her and retaliating against her related to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Rochelle district has denied any wrongdoing.

Marrero also was a finalist for superintendent in New Rochelle, but that district chose a different candidate. 

On Tuesday and again on Thursday, Latino community leaders sent letters to the Denver school board asking for a delay and for the process to be revisited. They said they were concerned nobody in Denver knew about the lawsuit before it was filed, that the allegations had not been fully vetted, and that Marrero may be distracted by dealing with the lawsuit. 

In Thursday’s letter, the community leaders also raised concerns about an ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against board member Tay Anderson. Anderson is stepping back from many board functions during the investigation. He voted in favor of Marrero, a decision he said will be his last until the investigation is concluded.

The community leaders said the board’s handling of both issues had eroded community confidence.

“Now is not the time for the Denver school board to be making the most important decision of its tenure, the selection of the next superintendent,” they wrote. “This decision will impact our children for years to come and we urge the board to await further information about the allegations against Dr. Marrero and Mr. Anderson.”

The meeting to vote on hiring Marrero was a work session with no public comment. The superintendent vote was an action item added to the agenda.

School board members said they had gone through a rigorous process with multiple opportunities for public feedback, and they called on the community to embrace Marrero and work with him as the district addresses disrupted learning and many other challenges.

“I am grateful for Dr. Marrero for going through our process,” board member Jennifer Bacon said. “It is not for the faint of heart. It took a lot of time, courage and commitment to go through it, but that is what our community is owed. And now it is time to move forward.” 

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