Tensions over collaboration mark effort to revive Denver city-school committee

A woman in a dark shirt speaks into a microphone as a woman to her left and a man to her right look on.
Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval speaks at a press conference Thursday flanked by former Denver Mayor Federico Peña and former school board and city council member Rosemary Rodriguez. Sandoval spoke in favor of reviving a joint city-school committee to improve collaboration. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

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Two Denver City Council members are trying to revive a committee of city and school district leaders to improve their collaboration — but Denver Public Schools officials and school board members say the effort has been anything but collaborative.

Tensions between the city and school district were apparent at a Thursday press conference, where City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval spoke about a proposed ordinance to restart a City-School Coordinating Committee that would meet six times per year. 

“This is nothing more than a reinstatement of a committee that should have never been allowed to lapse,” Sandoval said.

But DPS officials and school board members said in interviews that Sandoval rejected their input on the ordinance and didn’t tell them about the press conference. Board members also expressed concerns about Sandoval’s timeline, which has city council members scheduled to discuss the ordinance starting next week and take a final vote next month.

“I’m pretty disgusted about their overreach,” school board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said. “We are co-equals in this. It is not okay to be treating us in this disrespectful manner.”

The proposed ordinance comes as city leaders have criticized the school board for infighting, with Mayor Mike Johnston calling the board “a public embarrassment” during his mayoral campaign earlier this year. At the same time, there’s been some high-profile coordination between the city and DPS recently: In the wake of a March shooting inside East High School, the city agreed to pay for 14 police officers known as school resource officers — or SROs — to be stationed at some DPS high schools.

The proposed ordinance says the joint committee would have several duties, including to review facilities “that serve the recreational, educational, social, and cultural needs of the people of the city” to avoid duplicating services, to develop and fund joint programs, and to make policy recommendations on topics “including safety policies and procedures.”

Johnston, a former educator, spoke at the press conference in support of reviving the joint committee, acknowledging that both the city and DPS face challenges and “there is no way to deliver ongoing and sustained success without a deep collaboration.”

His remarks were tame compared to those of former mayors Federico Peña and Wellington Webb, who along with Sandoval are members of a group of civic leaders called Educate Denver that unveiled a new platform Thursday.

“Educate Denver is very disappointed with the Denver Public Schools leadership today,” said Peña, who served as mayor from 1983 to 1991. “We’re tired of all the debates and personal tirades on the school board. And very rarely do we hear about the students and their success.”

School board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson and board member Scott Esserman sat in the audience at the press conference as Peña encouraged Denver voters to cast ballots in next month’s school board election “if you’re not happy with where things are today in DPS.” At least two school board candidates were in the audience, as well.

After the press conference, Anderson, who is not running for re-election, criticized the harsh remarks aimed at DPS. “I kept hearing the word ‘collaboration,’ but we weren’t even invited to participate in this forum and we were slammed for the entirety,” he said.

Sandoval, who represents northwest Denver on the city council, said she used to meet regularly with former northwest Denver school board member Brad Laurvick, who resigned last year. But she said board member Charmaine Lindsay, who replaced Laurvick, has not returned her emails. 

“I haven’t had that collaboration,” Sandoval said. “It’s the first time in my life I have not.”

Lindsay did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Denver school officials say trust ‘broken’ by process

Sandoval said she first spoke to DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero last year about reviving the City-School Coordinating Committee, but didn’t send a proposed ordinance until August. 

Sandoval said DPS responded by sending her edits “that gutted the whole entire ordinance.”

Sandoval’s proposed ordinance envisioned a seven-member committee composed of the mayor, superintendent, the director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs, two city council members, and two school board members. But DPS officials noted that plan would give the city a majority of committee seats. The edits from DPS said that instead, the city should appoint two council members, the children’s affairs director, and the mayor to act as liaisons to the school district.

“It cut out the committee,” Sandoval said. “It cut out the collaboration.”

Deep Singh Badhesha, the government political liaison for DPS, said “what has put us off and broken our trust” is that instead of approaching the school district to co-create an ordinance, Sandoval “said, ‘Here’s my ordinance. You can agree with it or not.’”

Emails between Sandoval and DPS officials, provided to Chalkbeat by DPS, show Superintendent Alex Marrero pushed for “a more flexible and less formal approach to collaboration.” 

Marrero suggested that instead of having school board members serve on the committee, he and his team could meet twice a year with city council members. His email noted that he already offered to meet bimonthly with Johnston and twice a month with the Office of Children’s Affairs.

Marrero explained that the school board “delegates all operational authority to the superintendent,” meaning that he’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of DPS.

In a separate email, Badhesha wrote that tapping two school board members to serve on the joint committee would violate the board’s policy governance model, which requires it to “speak with one voice, and does not allow Board members to join committees that may assign individual Board members to take action on behalf of the entire Board.”

City Councilwoman Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez is co-sponsoring the ordinance. 

Sandoval said she’d like the committee to hold its first meeting in January or February. But even if the city council passes the ordinance and the City-School Coordinating Committee is reinstated, there’s nothing that requires DPS officials or board members to attend.

“I support this idea,” Gaytán said. “I’ve said this all along, from the beginning.”

But, she added, “it has to be more flexible.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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