Who Is In Charge

Legislative Preview 2013

The mix of big, complicated issues with a new cast of characters in the legislature could mean an intense and unpredictable year for education in the 2013 Colorado General Assembly.

Legislative issues logoThe 120-day session opens Wednesday morning with Democratic control of both houses, new leadership in each chamber, a large cadre of freshman members and a list of significant education issues waiting in the wings.

And those issues will have to compete for legislator time and attention with a packed agenda of other topics, including civil unions, mental health services, child protection, marijuana regulation, gun control, the death penalty, economic development, Medicaid expansion and drilling regulations.

The question of school finance is expected to overshadow all other education issues. Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder are crafting a plan that would significantly overhaul the school funding formula – contingent on subsequent voter approval of new revenues for schools.

Tuition rates for undocumented students and teacher licensing also are expected to be top 2013 education issues, perhaps along with school security.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and interest groups start making plans months before a legislative session convenes. But the details of proposed bills often are still in flux as opening day approaches and the general chaos of a legislative session makes predictions foolhardy.

“You know what the issues are, but you don’t know what the bills will be,” notes Frank Waterous, lobbyist for the Bell Policy Center.

That said, what follows is a session’s eve review of 2013’s likely big education issues, based on interviews with a wide selection of lawmakers, lobbyists, interest-group advocates and others.

The big issues

School finance

Funding for schools is a daunting subject. The system is costly – $5.4 billion a year in state and local funds. The system is complicated and much studied but little changed since it was set up in 1994. And it’s under legal assault, with the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on a lower court decision in the Lobato v. State lawsuit.

But some lawmakers and education advocates think 2013 is the year to create a new system that better serves the needs of schools today.

“There’s no reason for the legislature to wait. The time is now to do this,” says Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school funding.

Johnston and Heath are working on a two-step proposal that would have the legislature create a new financing structure – contingent on voter approval next November of increased school funding.

Another key player will be Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, incoming chair of the House Education Committee.

“I will be very involved in revising our School Finance Act and finding long-term funding solutions for K-12 education,” Hamner said.

(Learn about details of the plan in this December Education News Colorado story.)

“It’s a topic that will consume a lot of attention,” lobbyist Jennifer Mello recently told the State Board of Education, which she represents at the Capitol.

Mello also alluded to the likelihood that there will be lots of compromises and tweaking along the way.

“The bill that gets introduced won’t be the same bill that gets passed.”

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Shuffling the interlocking pieces of the school funding system has the potential to hurt some districts while helping others. Yet some observers think the sheer complexity of the issue, not battles of self-interest, could be a bigger barrier to passage of comprehensive change.

But advocates are optimistic barriers can be overcome.

“I really do believe we have an opportunity,” says Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has been at the center of school finance study and discussions over the past two years.

Because Johnston’s plan – if passed – wouldn’t go into effect unless voters approve new funding in November, the 2013 legislature still will have to pass a school funding bill for the 2013-14 budget year, which starts July 1.

Westminster Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak, incoming chair of the Senate Education Committee, says she will be carrying that bill and may try to use it to restore some of the equalization factors that have been diminished by budget cuts in recent years. Those factors are intended to give different amount of per-pupil funding to districts based on such things as number of at-risk students and staff cost of living.

ASSET – Undocumented student tuition

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With the Democrats back in control of both houses, most observers agree this is the year for what’s called the ASSET bill to pass.

As part of the larger debate over immigration, ASSET has been a touchy issue. Versions of the bill died in the Republican-controlled House in both 2011 and 2012.

Undocumented students can enroll at state colleges and universities but have to pay non-resident tuition, the highest rate. The 2012 bill would have created a rate between non-resident and resident levels and was crafted to avoid any taxpayer subsidy of undocumented students. That was done in a bid to attract at least some Republican support.

Because there’s no longer a mathematical need for GOP votes, there’s a lot of speculation about whether the 2013 bill will have more generous terms and about what those might be.

But there’s still a political calculus in the ASSET debate. Asked about the issue during a November meeting of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Education Leadership Council, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said, “The governor will be cautious about pushing for any bill that doesn’t have some Republican support.”

“We’re hopeful that it will pass this year,” said Sonja Semion, acting executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, one of the many advocacy groups that have backed ASSET. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a slam dunk.”

Teacher licensing

Over the last five sessions the legislature has tackled education issues ranging from content standards to testing to school ratings to teacher evaluations. But lawmakers haven’t tackled teacher licensing or preparation.

That may change in 2013.

Hamner said she was in conversations with other legislators about revisions to the state’s teacher and principal licensure processes.

“These processes are currently out of date and do not align well with our new procedures for determining teacher and principal effectiveness,” Hamner said.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

Johnston also is a key player in this discussion, as is Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock,  the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee.

Interest in the issue was prompted by a suggestion from the State Council for Educator Effectiveness and by a report submitted to the State Board in September.

That study, done by the New Teacher Project for the Department of Education, suggested a new test for incoming teachers and tying license renewal to the new teacher evaluations that will be in place in a couple of years. (Read study here.)

That latter suggestion makes the Colorado Education Association nervous, and any proposed evaluation/renewal link will get close scrutiny.

Mello, in her recent briefing to the State Board, predicted, “We anticipate a bill that represents only the beginning stages of a possible move towards tying licensure to effectiveness.”

(Learn more about the licensing discussion in this EdNews story.)

School security

There’s been a lot of chatter about gun control in the weeks since the shootings of children and teachers at a Connecticut school.

““I’m sure we’ll hear ideas about how to improve school safety,” Hamner predicts.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been discussing a possible bill that would provide some state financial support for districts and cities that add armed school resource officers to schools. King, a former police officer, has been a tireless advocate for school security but has had mixed success with his bills in recent years.

Lawmakers also are expected to face other gun-related legislation, including controls on assault weapons, and it’s possible school security will become entangled in that broader debate. Democratic members started discussing the issue after the Aurora theater shootings last July.

A bill also is expected that would modify the state’s concealed carry law as it relates to guns on college campuses.

The budget

This session will be the first since 2009 when the legislature won’t be preoccupied with budget cuts as a reviving economy has generated improved tax revenues for the state.

Legislative info
  • Lawmakers meet Monday-Friday most weeks through May 8
  • Floor sessions are held in the morning; committees meet late in the morning and after lunch
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  • Video of floor sessions is streamed online, and live audio is available for all committee meetings. Links here
  • General Assembly website

The brightening revenue picture has enabled the Hickenlooper administration to propose an increase of nearly $200 million for K-12 schools and of $30 million for higher education in 2013-14. (See this story for details.)

“Spring is here,” says Weil of Great Education Colorado.

“It’s going to be a more traditional year” without budget woes dominating other issues, predicts Chad Marturano, legislative liaison for the Department of Higher Education.

But the good feelings don’t mean the state’s budget problems are over or that there won’t be budget debates.

State economists believe recent revenue growth may have been driven by one-time capital gains tax revenues and that the legislature should be cautious about increased spending that would be difficult to sustain if revenues level off in subsequent years.

Hickenlooper proposes to take virtually all of the increased K-12 spending from the State Education Fund (SEF), a separate account from the main General Fund. Some lawmakers think the increase should be spread across the two accounts.

In good years lawmakers often are tempted to tap the SEF for pet education projects, and any attempts to do so this year could create conflict with the administration.

The governor’s budget plan proposes that districts take part of the increase and earmark it for at-risk preschool students and an incentive fund to attract teachers to rural districts. Some districts are uncomfortable with the proposed mandates.

Other issues to watch

Accountability

The state’s system for rating and accrediting districts and schools, created in 2009, calls for restructuring or closure of low-performing schools that fail to improve in five years. The rating system starts its fourth year on July 1.

That has ramped up the level of anxiety in struggling districts and schools, and the issue could come up in bills this year.

Bills are being developed to alter the accountability system for alternative education centers, which have the highest numbers of at-risk students.

Hudak says she is working on several ideas, including requiring a larger parent role in the future of schools in the lowest accreditation categories or perhaps expanding the number of options available to schools that face conversion.

Construction

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy Capital Construction Assistance Division

The Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants to districts and charters for renovation and construction, was widely hailed when it was created in 2008. But the program has gained critics in the last couple of years, including those who are concerned that BEST takes money that should be going to the state school lands permanent fund and that the program should have more legislative oversight.

Legislation to “rein in” BEST was discussed but never introduced last session. Look for the issue to return this year, focused on tighter management of BEST reserves and legislative oversight.

Early childhood

The highest-profile education bill of 2012 was the READ Act, which requires expansion of literacy education for students in the early grades.

It was a big bill, and the details of implementing it are still being worked out by the Department of Education.

But that doesn’t mean early childhood won’t be an issue this year. The top priority will be a bill to consolidate a variety of state ECE agencies, a proposal that died last year. The idea is being pushed by the Hickenlooper administration and a variety of interest groups, and Hamner says she plans to carry the bill in the House.

Energy efficient schools

Democrat Andy Kerr of Lakewood, now a senator after service in the House, is expected to introduce a bill that would set high energy-efficiency standards for new school buildings. He floated the idea more than once as a representative but never was able to get it passed.

Evaluation

The key education reform bill of the last five years was Senate Bill 10-191, which requires annual evaluations of principals and teachers. It calls for 50 percent of evaluations to be based on student academic growth and allows for loss of non-probationary status based on poor evaluations.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Wetminster / File photo

The state is in the second year of piloting evaluation systems in selected districts but there is some concern about whether the original SB 10-191 timelines can be met. All districts are supposed to start using new evaluations next year, although low evaluations won’t count against teachers’ non-probationary status.

Johnston, the father of the law, insists that deadlines don’t need to be changed and that lawmakers can fix any problems in 2014. Most education lobbyists say they think SB 10-191 should be left alone this year.

But concerns persist, and Hudak says, “It might be too soon to tweak it; it might not.”

It’s also possible that this year will see a bill designed to protect the confidentiality of evaluation information.

Health

The Colorado Children’s Campaign, along with a coalition of other groups, is pushing legislation that would expand “after the bell” free breakfasts in schools. The idea would require the program in schools with 70 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches, although some smaller districts and schools would be exempted.

The proposal would provide free breakfasts to an additional 85,000 children, advocates estimate.

Truancy

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is considering legislation that would require or encourage school districts to step up efforts to reduce student truancy.

A version of Fields’ idea failed to gain the endorsement of a legislative study committee last summer (read original bill draft here), but she’s said she intends to pursue the idea on her own.

Higher education

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Higher education usually has a lower profile than K-12 during any given legislative session, and 2013 looks to be no different.

But the Hickenlooper administration is considering legislation that would allow colleges and universities to seek voter approval for local/regional property or sales taxes to supplement state support, which has been slashed in recent years.

A similar proposal died at the statehouse a few years ago and any new legislation would face a lot of questions from higher education leaders with competing interests.

Questioned about the idea at a meeting late last year, Lt. Gov. Garcia said,
“It does bring new money into the system. Why would we deny the schools that have that ability the right to do that?”

Potential wild cards

Every session brings surprises, from unexpected twists on major bills to controversial ideas that spark lots of discussion but end up going nowhere.

Hamner summed up some of the potential wild-card issues.

“I’m also hearing about concerns about student assessment – the costs, the impact on instructional time, and the feasibility of conducting all assessments on-line,” Hamner said. “There is concern about whether a standardized, online assessment can truly measure what we value in student learning, such as the importance of critical thinking and problem solving. I also expect that we’ll hear a variety of proposals to improve outcomes for English language learners, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we also have some serious conversations about sex ed.”

Other issues that could pop up include regulation of online-only schools, district consolidation, a parent trigger bill, teachers’ union collective bargaining and the solvency of the state pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers.

The players

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Hamner, Heath, Hudak and Johnston will be among key lawmakers to watch this year.

Johnston is expected to be a central figure on school finance, teaching licensing and the ASSET bill, and some Capitol observers wonder if he’ll be overextended. As new chairs of the education committees, Hamner and Hudak will be watched closely for how they handle those roles. (See this story of details on the members of the two education committees.)

Democrats control the House 37-28 and have a 20-15 majority in the Senate. The House has 28 new members, including one with previous legislative experience, while the Senate has 10 new members, including six with prior experience in the House.

“I think we’re going to be spending more time bringing people up the speed, especially in the House,” Hudak said. “It might even slow down the Senate to some extent.”

Both chambers have new Democratic leaders, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs. (See this story for details on the full legislative leadership.)

End of an era

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg smiles as he checks out the new lights on the football field at the Montbello campus earlier this month.

Tom Boasberg paused on his way out of the elementary school and held his phone to his mouth. The October sky was growing darker, and the Denver superintendent had just half an hour to get across the city in rush-hour traffic.

“Montbello High School,” he said in a low tone, enunciating each word so his phone would understand his destination.

GPS will still get you there, but the high school doesn’t technically exist anymore. In late 2010, nearly two years into Boasberg’s tenure, he advocated for closing Montbello High and replacing it with three smaller schools. The oft-cited statistic at the time was that just six of every 100 Montbello freshmen graduated ready for college. Boasberg — and a majority of the school board — thought the district could do better.

Now, in the waning days of his superintendency, Boasberg was headed back to Montbello for a celebration. The small schools that share the campus had just reopened their library after months of renovations and years of not having a full-time librarian. Plus, the football field was set to switch on its first-ever stadium lights — a big deal in a neighborhood with a proud history of excelling at high school sports and the packed trophy cases to prove it.

The upgrades were the result of relentless advocacy at public meetings by coaches, parents, and other residents. The scenes resembled countless others that played out over Boasberg’s near-decade at the helm of Colorado’s largest school district, which he led through a steady stream of big and sometimes unpopular changes to try to improve its schools.

His legacy is deeply entwined with those changes. Supporters hail him as the engine behind an urban success story with an impressive track record of turning around struggling schools. State test scores rose steadily under his watch. The high school graduation rate increased by 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2017. And district enrollment, once anemic, surged by more than 14,000 students, which some see as proof of parents’ confidence.

“There’s been a continuity over a period of time that provided stability, capable leadership, and direction,” said Bill Kurtz, founder of DSST, Denver’s largest homegrown charter school network. “That’s not the typical trajectory of a lot of large, urban public school districts.”

But critics point to stubborn problems that haven’t gone away. Schools, on the whole, remain segregated by race and family income in a district where a majority of the nearly 93,000 students are black and Latino and come from poor families. Test score gaps between more and less privileged students haven’t closed. And parents and residents of the neighborhoods most affected by controversial reforms continue to feel the district ignores their concerns.

Most everyone would lay the district’s failures and successes at Boasberg’s feet. However, even his harshest detractors agree that if nothing else, he was driven.

“He wasn’t a superintendent that just put out fires,” said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver teachers union, which butted heads with Boasberg on a multitude of issues over the years. “He had a clear vision of where he wanted the district to go.”

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Boasberg answers questions from kindergarteners in 2009 soon after being appointed superintendent.

That’s perhaps surprising given that Boasberg, whose last day is Friday, never intended to be superintendent. He came to work for Denver Public Schools from a private-sector telecommunications company in 2007, recruited by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet.

The two are childhood friends. Boasberg, 54, grew up in Washington, D.C., in the ’60s and ’70s. Living in what he described as a newly integrated neighborhood and attending a newly integrated school — which was private, not public — he said he learned the importance of “not misjudging or undervaluing people because of who they are or the color of their skin, but ensuring people get the respect and opportunities they deserve.”

As a child, he dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer. But though he earned a law degree, he did not make his career in the courtroom. He worked for a time in Hong Kong, including a stint as a junior high school English teacher. He also served a higher-profile stint as the chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

When Bennet asked him to join Denver Public Schools, Boasberg said he was drawn to it for the same reasons he’d once wanted to fight for people’s civil rights in court.

“As I got older, I recognized that, obviously, the law plays an incredibly important role” in driving equity, he said, “but I think our schools play an even more important role.”

At the time, Denver was the lowest-performing large school district in Colorado. It was also a few years into a big shift. Bennet was the first leader in years who hadn’t come from an education background, and he was shaking things up. He had a strategic plan full of lofty goals and some controversial ways to achieve them, including closing struggling schools. Student test scores, while still far below the state average, were beginning to show growth.

Boasberg was hired as the chief operating officer and tasked with overseeing the behind-the-scenes departments, such as food services and transportation, that make schools run. Gifted with numbers and a knack for efficiency, he earned high praise in that job, including from those who would come to dislike his policies as superintendent.

When Bennet was tapped in early January 2009 to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, the school board scrambled to find someone who would continue what Bennet had started. Board members quickly settled on Boasberg, who was voted in on Jan. 22.

From the start, Boasberg made plain his ambition.

“The opportunity for us, and the challenge, is not to rechart our direction or search for our destination,” he said after the vote, which his parents flew in from D.C. to watch alongside his wife and three children, “but to accelerate our reforms and do the work that will enable us to reach our goal of becoming the best urban district in the nation.”

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Boasberg high-fives Damian Lopez, 4, as he arrives in August for the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy, a district school that serves students in preschool and kindergarten. The high-five was Boasberg’s signature greeting.

Both supporters and critics view Bennet and Boasberg as something of a package deal. When asked to reflect on Boasberg’s tenure, most people start with Bennet. But while the two remain closely aligned on policy, their personalities are vastly different.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, who is thought to be on the short list to succeed Boasberg, provided an evocative example.

“One of my strongest memories of Michael Bennet is if you were in an elevator with him, he talked to everybody,” she said. “Tom is not nearly as extroverted, but he’s very approachable.”

Tall and fit, with rimless glasses and short hair that has grown more gray over the years, Boasberg often dressed for the job in khakis and polo shirts. When he showed up at a middle school in a suit and tie last week, people remarked on his attire.

He’s more comfortable with data and details than with crowds, though longtime observers note he’s gotten better over the years at addressing packed auditoriums and schmoozy fundraising galas. He’s a naturally soft speaker, a patient listener, and a deep thinker. His default expression is serious, but he’s also quick to crack a joke (often of the dad variety).

“He’s articulate and charming,” said Paul Hill, founder of a Seattle-based think tank called the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who has known Boasberg for years and supports his reforms, “but he’s not somebody that gets the troops riled up.”

He is somebody who gets things done. For his entire tenure, he had the backing of a majority of the district’s seven-member school board, and Denver voters twice approved tax increases to funnel more money into the schools. The initiatives he successfully pushed for include:

Many of those elements make up what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” for managing schools, and Denver’s deft execution of the model has made it a darling among charter school advocates. It has also made the district a cautionary tale to traditionalists and teachers unions who think independently run charter schools are “privatizing” public education.

For his part, Boasberg doesn’t want the portfolio strategy to be the thing that defines his legacy.

He points instead to much lower profile, more methodical work as his biggest achievement: a collection of district programs meant to raise the quality of its teachers and principals, which research shows is one of the most important factors in student success.

“Above all, it’s been around talent,” Boasberg said of the district’s strategy, and “just a real deep belief that this work is extraordinarily hard and challenging. The level of skill we need from our teachers, our school leaders, our district-level folks is very, very high.”

The initiatives include a cadre of residency programs, some of which give student teachers hands-on experience in the classroom and another that allows aspiring principals to spend a year working under veteran school leaders who act as mentors. Three-quarters of the new principals hired this year came up through one of the district’s programs.

One of the initiatives Boasberg is proudest of has standout teachers spend half of their time teaching students and the other half coaching other teachers. The arrangement is meant to help the other teachers improve and keep the district’s strongest teachers in the classroom.

Justin Jeannot, a teacher coach at Abraham Lincoln High School, said the opportunity to become a leader without having to give up teaching has kept him in Denver Public Schools.

“I have found purpose and a home in teaching students,” said Jeannot, who became a teacher after a career in engineering, “but it has been much nicer to be in a district that really is trying to be on the cutting edge of harnessing the leadership power of their teachers.”

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez/Chalkbeat
Boasberg receives a pin to mark his fifth year on the job. His lanyard grew more crowded by the end of his tenure.

Counted among those who think Boasberg will leave the district in better shape than he found it are school principals who took advantage of the flexibilities he afforded them, the founders of Denver’s biggest charter school networks, and advocates who believe so wholeheartedly in the portfolio strategy, they wish Boasberg would have been even more aggressive.

They see his legacy as one of setting aside ideological squabbles about which types of schools — charter or traditional — are best, and instead focusing on what would serve students.

“It’s always been about quality for him, not about ideology,” said Chris Gibbons, the founder of STRIVE Prep, which began with a single charter school in Denver and now has 11.

Mike Vaughn, who served as Boasberg’s chief communications officer for five years, said although his former boss had good political instincts and was able to anticipate who might be mad about a particular decision, “his calculus was always a family calculus: ‘How can we better serve families and give our families better schools?’”

Many say Boasberg has done that. A decade ago, a quarter of the city’s school-age children didn’t attend Denver Public Schools. Their parents opted instead for private or suburban schools they thought were better. That’s no longer the case.

“What’s happened in this era over the last 10 or 13 years is there’s an expectation that if you live in Denver, you should be able to send your kid to a good school,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Colorado, an advocacy group that supported many of Boasberg’s initiatives.

Others said Boasberg will be remembered for decentralizing district decision-making and pushing his school principals to think like entrepreneurs.

“One of his big mottos was, ‘Don’t wait, lead,” said Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a district-run elementary school that had a history of low test scores. Reynolds competed for the chance to restart it with a new program. “To know that from the top down, that’s the message — that spoke to me.”

Still others pointed to Boasberg’s commitment to equity, which included giving schools extra money to educate students with higher needs, such as those living in poverty, and doling out millions of additional dollars each year to the most academically struggling schools.

Equity is one of the six shared core values that district employees chose in 2012. Boasberg remembers the day that a thousand people brainstormed them in a huge banquet hall as one of the most fun of his tenure.

The core values have given way to a tradition where employees shout out their colleagues for demonstrating one of the values, which earns that person a small pin to fasten to their work-badge lanyard. Boasberg’s lanyard is full of them.

“Everyone who comes to work in the Denver Public Schools is extraordinarily mission- and values-oriented. That’s why we’re here,” Boasberg said, reflecting on what prompted the tradition. “What we sought to do is to say, ‘What an unbelievable strength that we have. How do we bring that together? How do we celebrate that?’”

That feeling is one of the things Boasberg said he’ll miss the most about working for the district. He does not have immediate plans for what he’ll do next beyond spending more time with his wife and kids. The family lives in Boulder, a city 30 miles northwest of Denver.

“That thought of getting out of bed on the morning of the 20th — probably I’ll get up a little bit later that morning — but I will deeply, deeply miss the shared mission here and the incredible group of people,” Boasberg said, referring to the day after he steps down.

Teacher Rebecca Erlichman said she’s appreciated having a shared vision under Boasberg.

“Even when you’re super stressed out, you know you’re all working toward a common goal,” said Erlichman, who is in her 11th year of teaching at Godsman Elementary School. “There’s something that’s really empowering about that.”

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Boasberg sits in a meeting with school board members in 2017.

But not everyone felt empowered by Boasberg. Students, parents, teachers, and residents whose schools and neighborhoods were in the crosshairs of his most controversial policies say he will be remembered for disregarding community voice.

Time and again, they said, district officials called meetings to gather community feedback on an unpopular proposal, dutifully wrote down people’s concerns in colored marker on white butcher paper, and then did whatever they were going to do anyway.

“You get a dog and pony show: D.P.S.,” said Jeff Fard, a Denver Public Schools graduate, parent, and black community activist. “I’ve sat through too many of those meetings where they’re listening to the community and they go out and do the exact opposite.”

“It doesn’t matter if you speak in a low, soft tone to our faces,” said Candi CdeBaca, a graduate who founded a nonprofit that trains youth to advocate on education issues. “What matters is what decisions you are making, or you are failing to make, behind closed doors.”

Even those who think Boasberg was a great leader admit that community engagement was an area of weakness for him.

“Maybe it was the type of decisions we had to make that were really hard,” said Mary Seawell, who served on the school board from 2009 to 2013 and was a Boasberg ally. But, she said, “it didn’t get better, it just deepened. I’m talking about parents who walked in, in good faith, to a gymnasium and ended up leaving disappointed.”

Recently retired teacher Margaret Bobb, who taught in the district for decades and was active in the teachers union, said teachers often felt the same way. Boasberg’s support for evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and his defense of a pay-for-performance system that some see as favoring one-time bonuses over salary raises, made his insistence that teachers are the most important ingredient in a good public education seem disingenuous, she said.

“As I reflect on Tom, it’s been 10 years of lip service to teachers but not anything tangible that shows he believes in their intrinsic value,” she said.

Others say that for all his talk of equity, Boasberg did not do well by teachers of color. Recent efforts to diversify the teaching force have barely moved the needle, perpetuating an environment where 76 percent of students are students of color but 73 percent of teachers are white. A report commissioned by the district in 2016 found that black teachers, who make up about 4 percent of the teaching force, felt isolated and passed-over for promotions.

Some educators of color have another interpretation of the district’s acronym: Don’t plan to stay.

Still others blame Boasberg’s commitment to school choice for exacerbating gentrification in Denver by making it easier for wealthier families to move into working-class neighborhoods, knowing they don’t have to send their children to the neighborhood schools.

Critics say all of that has hurt students of color and those from low-income families. While their test scores have risen over the years, they continue to lag behind those of their white and wealthier peers. Black and Latino students, and those living in poverty, have also borne the brunt of the district’s practice of closing low-performing schools.

Azlan Williams was a junior at Montbello High in 2010 when Boasberg proposed phasing it out and replacing it with three smaller schools. He went with his parents to the community meetings, and he remembers the anger and the pleas for more time to turn things around. Williams, who was a good student and star basketball player, also remembers the disappointment when they didn’t get it, and how his school, home of the Warriors, felt different after that.

“It was like the air came out of the school,” he said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Boasberg chats with teacher librarian Julia Torres, left, and the district’s director of library services, Caroline Hughes, middle, in the renovated library on the Montbello campus.

More than half an hour after leaving the elementary school for the Montbello campus, Boasberg walked into the new library around 6 p.m. There was comfy new furniture, $30,000 worth of new books, and five new flat-screen TVs that students in a book club organized by the new librarian used earlier that day to Skype with the author of a novel they’d just read.

The hard-won renovation “restores that sense of respect that the children do deserve nice things,” said librarian Julia Torres, who previously taught English at one of the schools on the campus. “This has been a huge confidence booster.”

Boasberg argues that the closure of Montbello High achieved its intended goal: better opportunities for the students in far northeast Denver. He points to the numbers as proof. In 2010, 333 students graduated from high schools in the region. This year, 768 did.

“Students are feeling more challenged, they’re getting more individualized supports, and the culture at our secondary schools is stronger,” Boasberg said recently.

There were no big speeches in the library, no ceremonial ribbon to cut. Just chit-chat and a tray of finger sandwiches. As the sky turned black, a small group headed outside. It included Boasberg; his deputy, Cordova; two school board members; three principals; and two of the football coaches who’d agitated hardest for the changes.

The field was flooded with light so white and sharp that it made everything look as if it were in high-definition. The head coach trotted over to shake Boasberg’s hand. It was a much different scene than when the coach had shown up at school board meetings to air concerns that his players, who come from several small schools but play together as the Warriors, had no lights and varying bell schedules that made it hard for everyone to get on the field before dark.

“I don’t have nothing else to ask you for,” coach Tony Lindsay said, laughing and grasping Boasberg’s arm, his breath visible in the chilly night air. “Now I gotta do my thing.”

Boasberg and the others watched the players practice for a minute before huddling in a circle. The principals thanked the district. Boasberg thanked the principals. He also thanked the coaches and community members for their advocacy — and their criticism.

“We needed to get to work here and make some really necessary improvements,” Boasberg said. “This is a night I will remember for a long time.”

Afterward, he stopped to chat with a group of teenage girls standing on the sideline. He asked what they thought of the lights. “Pretty good,” one said. And the library? The girls told him they didn’t go to school at Montbello. They went to a different small high school, one of the original three that had replaced Montbello High but had since moved to another location in the neighborhood. Their school, they said, doesn’t have a library.

As Boasberg turned to walk back into the building, he recounted the story to a school board member. Even though he was set to step down as superintendent in little more than a week, he hadn’t stopped thinking about the future of the district.

“I told them, ‘You’re next,’” he said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Boasberg addresses school officials, members of the media, and football coaches under the new lights.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”