Who Is In Charge

Concerns raised over DPS tax measures

Denver Public Schools officials are promoting two measures on the Nov. 6 ballot that would add $515 million to the school district’s debt load, which some contend already is weighed down by past bond issues and unfunded pension obligations.

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.The district is asking Denver voters to approve a $49 million mill levy (3A on the ballot) and a $466 million bond issue (measure 3B) for classroom programs and critical maintenance needs in the district. If both measures pass, they would add about $140 a year to the tax bill of a $225,000 home, according to the district.

While there’s no denying that state budget cuts have hurt Colorado school districts and that many Denver schools are in need of maintenance and upgrades, some current and former public officials are concerned about the debt burden created by the district’s past bond issues.

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Tom Boasberg, DPS superintendent, said if the measures pass, Denver taxpayers still will be paying less than taxpayers in neighboring jurisdictions.

“Funds for K-12 education have been severely cut for last three years,” Boasberg said. “We are getting $800 less per student than we did three years ago — that’s $60 million less a year than we were receiving three years ago.”

At the same time, DPS has grown by almost 11,000 students, or about 15 percent, in the last five years, he said.

“The mill levy would allow us to expand arts, music, sports and enrichment programs and provide critical tutoring and small-group tutoring for our kids,” Boasberg said. “It will allow 1,000 4-year-olds in poverty the chance to go to full-day preschool … instead of sitting on wait lists for this critical opportunity.”

The $466 million bond issue will enable the district to “perform critical maintenance and renovations on our school buildings,” he said.

But those concerned about the district’s debt point to $750 million in pension certificates of participation (PCOPs) the district issued in 2008 to take care of its unfunded pension liabilities. They note that DPS’ pension liabilities are higher now than they were before the district did the complex financing, which will cost Denver taxpayers a total of nearly $2 billion by 2038, according to DPS figures.

The DPS Division of the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) had $637 million in unfunded pension liabilities at the end of 2011, according to PERA’s latest annual report.

When DPS issued $750 million in PCOPs in 2008, the district had a $400 million pension shortfall, about $265 million in previously issued pension debt and the costs associated with the issuing of new debt.

“We suffered the worst crash since the Great Depression, so all of PERA is down,” Boasberg said of the increased DPS pension shortfall since 2008.

Lynn Turner, board member of PERA, said the district bond issues have “only shifted who they owed money to from the pension plan to the bond investors. They never changed the fact they still had to come up somehow with money to cover the debt and cash-flow shortfalls.”

Turner, a former chief accountant for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said DPS officials have long been trying to figure out ways to make up for unfunded pension liabilities without hurting the district’s cash flow.

“DPS has had shortfalls in cash flows since the late 1990s that have led to the underfunding of their pension plan obligations,” Turner said, noting he was speaking only for himself, not for PERA. “DPS, instead of addressing the core issue, has put their heads in the sand and issued bonds trying to make it look like their pension problem has been solved, when the reality is that it hasn’t.”

John MacPherson, a retired DPS teacher and principal who was a board trustee for the Denver Public Schools Retirement System when the 2008 PCOPs were issued, asserts that DPS “has not contributed enough to its pension plan to cover even the normal cost for active employees” since July 1, 2009.

Employers with defined-benefit pension plans are required to cover “normal” costs for employees, or the present value of benefits that have accrued on behalf of members during the valuation year. In addition, employers in PERA also are required to contribute to pay down unfunded liabilities.

Legislation passed in 2009 related to the DPS merger of its pension fund with PERA allows DPS to reduce the amount it contributes to PERA based on the PCOPs payments it makes.

In 2011, DPS contributed 3.67 percent of its payroll to pension benefits, compared with 15.31 percent by the School Division (the rest of the state’s public schools), according to the PERA annual report. DPS was able to reduce its contribution by 14.88 percent last year, with the PCOPs credit.

“What we have today, and my concern, is that DPS is purposely defunding the employees’ pension plan to be able to save money in the name of the 2008 PCOPs transaction,” MacPherson said. “They are correct that it is perfectly legal. My question is … is it ethical?”

Boasberg countered that the DPS Division is better funded than the School Division of PERA, thanks to the PCOPs; that DPS pays a lower interest rate to bondholders than the School Division pays to PERA; and the credit it gets on its contributions is meant to bring DPS in line with the School Division in terms of its unfunded pension liabilities.

At the end of 2011, the DPS pension was 81.9 percent funded, down from 88.2 percent at the end of 2010, the first year the DPS pension was part of PERA.

The School Division was 60.2 percent funded at the end of last year, down from 63.3 percent at the end of 2010.

But Turner thinks the 2009 legislation “ensured the funding levels of the pension would fall precipitously to very low and dangerous levels.”

“This was the result of DPS being able to, in essence, count their bond payments toward the amount of annual contributions into the pension fund, even though they would not be making the required annual fund contribution,” he said.

And Turner isn’t a fan of the PCOPs transaction in 2008. “DPS gambled with taxpayers’ money when they decided to enter into interest-rate swaps — and they lost,” he said. “To date, that gamble has taken a lot of money out of the classroom that would have otherwise benefited students. And instead, money has gone into the pockets of bankers.”

Richard Allen, the DPS assistant superintendent for budget and finance from 2001 to 2006, said chronic underfunding of the DPS pension has created the problems the district now faces.

“It’s the wages of past sins that makes this happen,” Allen said. “And 20 years from now, someone else will be having this same conversation.”

Heather Draper covers banking, finance, law and the economy for the Denver Business Journal and writes for the “Finance Etc.” blog. Phone: 303-803-9230.

Copyright 2012 Denver Business Journal. This article is reprinted with permission.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

Share your thoughts on Boasberg’s exit here:

reading list

These 12 stories help define Tom Boasberg’s tenure leading Denver’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat File Photo
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, center, with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and a DPS student on the opening day of school in 2011.

Tom Boasberg, who today announced his plans to step down as Denver’s schools superintendent, leaves behind nearly a decade of high-profile debates and decisions that reshaped the city’s public school system and made plenty of local and national headlines.

For years, Boasberg’s tenure featured sharp political divides among the city’s school board. His school improvement efforts, notably in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood, garnered mixed results for students. And his embrace of nontraditional school management, the so-called “portfolio model,” has earned him national praise.

Here’s a chronological look back at a dozen stories that defined his nearly decade of leading Denver Public Schools.

Denver Public Schools “therapy” forges progress

In 2009, at a daylong meeting attended by Denver school board members, Boasberg, and a therapist, the superintendent and the board appeared to forge closer ties after a divisive school board election. The session at the tony Broadmoor Hotel included coaching board members and Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their respective roles – and Boasberg’s job security.

More shared campuses, still controversial

One of the first waves of school reform policies the district embraced was locating multiple schools on one campus. While Boasberg didn’t start the district’s practice of placing charter and district-run schools on shared sites, his administration did continue it — much to the dismay of some schools’ staff and community members.

Boasberg’s school improvement efforts in Far Northeast Denver take off

One of the superintendent’s earliest — and most ambitious — school turnaround strategies was to overhaul schools in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood. The neighborhood, which serves a majority of black and Latino students, had the highest concentration of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Boasberg: Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility

No school in Denver has been subject to more improvement efforts — by multiple superintendents — than storied Manual High School. After some minor improvements, the school took a turn for the worse and by 2014 was once again the city’s lowest-performing school. After dismissing the school’s principal, Boasberg took ownership of the school’s downfall.

Denver Public Schools ‘ahead of the curve’ with proposed facilities policy

After years of opening and closing numerous schools, DPS began to formalize the process. One of its first stabs at systematizing its “portfolio model” was a facilities policy. The policy, which applies to both charter and district schools, would tie placement decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, and other district priorities.

Why Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg landed an unprecedented six-month break

In January of 2016, Boasberg took off for six months with his family for a trip to Latin America. The uncommon stability of Denver Public Schools made his respite possible, observers said.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

Denver Public Schools has long strived to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Boasberg penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy. Here we explain and provide context for Boasberg’s memo.

Efforts to better integrate Denver middle schools proving tough, analysis finds

One way Boasberg and Denver Public Schools attempted to fight school segregation was the creation of “enrollment zones.” The idea was that extending boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them would increase integration in a gentrifying city where many neighborhoods are segregated. But there was little evidence of success six years in.

Inside the rocky rollout of Denver Public Schools’ new school closure policy

Another policy Boasberg and the Denver school board created to guide its portfolio strategy was the “School Performance Compact.” Boasberg insisted the school closure policy was not the leading strategy to try to achieve the district’s improvement goals. The policy, he said, took a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students. Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”

Denver Public Schools retooling equity measure, presses forward on scoring schools

Denver’s well-established – and sometimes controversial – school rating system got an update in 2017 when the district added a new “equity measure.” Despite some pushback from school leaders, Boasberg and the district pushed forward with scoring schools based on how well they closed the gap between students who performed well on state tests (usually white and middle-class) and those who didn’t (usually black and Latino from low-income homes.)

Denver schools chief: Removing DACA protections for undocumented immigrants would be ‘catastrophic’

Boasberg took on a new role in the Trump era. The typically reserved superintendent regularly sought to reassure students, parents, and his own employees that he would protect them from any apparent overreach by the new administration. He also regularly spoke out in favor of Congress protecting the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. “Our schools and our community are strengthened by our city’s rich diversity and open arms,” Boasberg said. “The DACA program has helped bring wonderfully talented and critically needed teachers to our classrooms and has provided peace of mind and legal status to thousands of immigrant children and families who make our city and our schools great.”

Large achievement gaps in Denver highlighted by new national test data

Despite years of change, Denver’s achievement gap has barely budged. That fact was reinforced earlier this year after DPS received its scores from the tests known as “the nation’s report card.” At the time Boasberg said the latest scores confirmed the district needed to continue to focus on closing its gaps. He repeated his concern about the gaps when he discussed his exit with Chalkbeat.