School Finance

School finance plan a tale of 178 districts

The proposed $950 million education tax hike is garnering broad support across Colorado’s education community. But because the plan affects school districts in so many different ways, the intensity of that support varies.

StockA66Logo92613“You almost have to take it district by district” to gauge the impact of Amendment 66 and its companion Senate Bill 13-213, said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of Schools Boards.

Despite those differences, many school administrators support the plan. Opinions vary more widely among school board members and candidates.

EdNews reviewed district-by-district projections compiled by legislative analysts and the Department of Education and interviewed education leaders around the state to develop a picture of how districts would be affected and how people are responding. The database that accompanies this article allows you to find the figures for individual districts.

Key features of the bill would change the state’s school funding formula to provide more support for full-day kindergarten and the state preschool program and to shift more support to at-risk students and English language learners, particularly in districts where such students are concentrated.

PLAN AT A GLANCE
Key features of SB213
  • Changes the current single-date enrollment count to a system called average daily membership, intended to provide more accurate student counts
  • Significant changes in the weights used to calculate individual district funding
  • Full funding of state program for at-risk preschoolers and for full-day kindergarten
  • Increased funding for charters
  • Somewhat more flexibility for principals in spending at-risk funds
  • $411 per student for districts to spend on reform implementation
  • Grant program to fund innovations and measures such as longer school days
  • More funding for special education and gifted and talented
  • Increased flexibility for districts in local tax increases
  • Detailed reports required on spending and effectiveness

Funding for some parts of the bill may fluctuate depending on actual revenues, and many observers think additional legislation will be needed to fine-tune the bill.

Legislative staff analysis

Key features of A66

  • Requires that 43 percent of state general fund revenues be devoted to P-12 education
  • Removes the requirement for annual inflationary increases from the constitution
  • Raises the individual income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000
  • Income above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent
  • Small business owners who file taxes as individuals would be affected

“Blue Book” explanation of A66

How at-risk funding works

Every district would receive at least 20 percent of the statewide base per pupil amount for every at-risk and ELL student on top of the regular funding for that student

Districts whose populations have more than the statewide average of at-risk or ELL students (43.8 percent) could receive up to 40 percent of the base per pupil amount

The definition of at-risk is expanded to include students eligible for reduced-price or free lunches, not just free lunch as is the case now

Students defined as both at-risk and ELL would be given double weight

Statewide average per-pupil funding would move from the current $6,652 to an estimated $7,426, an 11.6 percent increase for total annual spending of about $6.5 billion on basic school operating costs.

But that system won’t go into effect unless voters pass Amendment 66, which would raise state income tax rates to generate an estimated $950 million in the first year. That’s projected to rise to $1.01 billion in 2015-16, when the SB 13-213 formula would kick in. Another key provision of the amendment would require that 43 percent of annual state revenues from income, sales and excise taxes be devoted to P-12 education.

At the big-picture level, there are two important things to remember about SB 13-213 and Amendment 66. First, the new system would significantly increase funding for some districts and provide more modest growth for others. Second, the new revenue basically would restore overall state and local per-pupil funding to the level of 2009-10, the funding high point that came just before the recession and declining state revenues forced about $1 billion in cuts to school spending.

Differences in funding for individual school districts are nothing new. The current funding formula, in place for about 20 years, weights individual district funding based on size, cost of living for staff and numbers of at-risk students.

Per-pupil district funding ranges from a low of $6,205 to a high of $15,472.

The new system would change the current weights, restricting use of a size factor to smaller districts and eliminating the cost of living factor, which tended to benefit wealthier districts. Instead, the new system would increase aid to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. Under the new formula per-student funding would range from $6,608 to $19,597.

A story of four districts

A look at four Denver area districts illustrates the effect of the new formula.

In the Denver Public Schools, with 76.6 percent at-risk students, per-pupil funding would rise from $7,045 to $8,131, a 15.4 percent increase.

To the west, Jefferson County, with 36.4 percent of its students considered at-risk, would see per-pupil funding rise from the current $6,486 to $7,112, a 9.7 percent increase.

The current difference in funding between the two districts is $559 per student; it would rise to $1,019 under the new system.

Per-pupil funding in Aurora, with an at-risk population of 71.7, would rise from $6,933 to $8,104, a jump of 16.9 percent.

To the south, the Cherry Creek district has 27.5 percent of its students classified as at risk. Its current per-pupil funding $6,576 would rise to $7,016, an increase of 6.7 percent increase.

So the current $357 gap between Cherry Creek and Aurora would rise to $988.

(SB 13-213 defines at-risk as students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.)

Concerns about the impact of the original SB 13-213 led to several compromises as the bill moved through the legislature last spring, with the key amendments adding more money for some districts.

What people are saying

While those changes didn’t turn every district leader into an unabashed cheerleader for the new system, there is generally wide support for Amendment 66 among administrators, because it would increase P-12 funding overall and because many educators see it as the state’s best shot at recovering some of the cuts of recent years.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson summed up the feelings of many in a comment during a recent panel discussion at the University of Colorado Denver.

“Amendment 66 will make a difference. It will make a bigger difference for Denver,”  she said in response to a question. “Am I excited about that? No. Do I understand that? Yes.”

Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11, says he hears comments about funding differences from other districts. “My rebuttal to that is, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have 56 percent free and reduced lunch. You don’t have the challenges we do.” District 11’s per pupil funding would increase 9.1 percent under the plan.

Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Glenwood Springs-based Roaring Fork district, said she also hears varying degrees of support in different districts. “A lot of it is, ‘What’s in it for our district and our children?’” Roaring Fork would see a 4.6 percent per-pupil increase. Neighboring Aspen would have a 2.5 percent cut on a per-pupil basis.

The Roaring Fork board recently endorsed Amendment 66, while the Aspen board is staying neutral.

This issue also has cropped up on the school board campaign trail.

During a recent candidate forum in Jefferson County, candidate Jeff Lamontagne said, “Schools in Colorado have been underfunded for a long time.” But he added, “As I go door to door I do hear concerns and questions” about how the new system would affect different districts.

His opponent, John Newkirk, said, “I would prefer that any money raised in Jeffco should stay in Jeffco. As written I oppose Amendment 66.”

Feelings about Amendment 66 seem to vary more widely among school board members, who as elected officials are sensitive to community divisions over the proposed tax increase.

“The mood is hesitancy and ambivalence,” said Urschel. “A lot of [boards] will perhaps not bring it to a vote.”

Chart“The majority of rural boards are staying neutral,” said Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus. “I think it’s a difficult issue for everyone.” The caucus steering committee, however, voted Friday to endorse the amendment.

Boards in some larger urban districts have endorsed Amendment 66, including Denver and Aurora. The Boulder board also endorsed the proposal – but on a split 4-3 vote – while the neighboring St. Vrain board supported it unanimously. The Douglas County board opposes the amendment, and the Jeffco board hasn’t considered the issue. Cherry Creek has decided to remain neutral.

Among many school administrators there’s a feeling that SB 13-213 and Amendment 66 offer an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

“Is it perfect? No, but it is way, way better than the alternative,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough.

Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper noted districts “have had different perspectives on some aspects of the amendment or Senate Bill 213 [but] we shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the better. … We’re not going to ever get to perfect.”

In the weeds on SB 13-213

Calculations are tricky

The per-pupil funding figures in this article provide estimates for comparison, and figures likely be different in 2015-16 when SB 13-213 would go into effect if Amendment 66 passes.

In some cases districts whose per-pupil funding would decline actually would see increases in what’s called Total Program Funding. That’s because of complex interactions between projected preschool and kindergarten growth and the weights used to give some small districts more money. In many instances districts have local tax overrides that provide funding not reflected in these figures.

SB 13-213 also proposes some additional funding, such as nearly $190 million for special education that could increase district revenues. However, the total for special education is dependent on the actual revenues generated by the amendment if it passes.

If you’re really curious about how the bill works, this CDE spreadsheet walks through the calculations for every district. It’s complicated – each district’s entry runs for 237 lines in the spreadsheet. See also this CDE primer on SB 13-213.

Recovering what was lost

As noted above, many district leaders support Amendment 66 partly because it would restore the estimated $1 billion in school funding lost during the recession and the resulting state budget cuts.

Average statewide per-pupil funding was $7,242 in 2009-10, the high-point budget year before the recession’s effects hit. SB 13-213 would provide a 2.5 percent increase.

But the effects would be uneven for individual districts, with some growing beyond 2009-10 levels and others not recovering what was lost. That’s because the SB 13-213 formula is different than the one used to allocated funds in the past.

Different funding for different districts

The first version of SB 13-213 would have cut funding for some districts because of the shift of resources to early education and to at-risk and ELL students. A series of three key compromises during legislative debates adjusted the bill’s formula to increase funding for the following districts. Based on how the new formulas applied to them, some districts received more than one kind of additional revenue.

Hold harmless funding – $37 million

Agate, Arikaree, Aspen, Bayfield, Campo, Cheyenne (Cheyenne County), Clear Creek, Cripple Creek, DeBeque, Durango, Gilpin, Hanover, Ignacio, Kim, Kit Carson, Norwood, Ouray, Parachute, Plateau, Platte Canyon, Primero, Rangely, Ridgway, Steamboat Springs and Telluride

Floor funding – $117 million

Academy, Adams 12-Five Star, Bayfield, Boulder, Branson, Brighton, Buena Vista, Cherry Creek, Cheyenne Mountain, Delta, Douglas, Durango, Elizabeth, Falcon, Florence, Fountain, Gunnison, Jefferson, Johnstown, Keenesburg, Lewis-Palmer, Littleton, Mesa Valley, Parachute, Poudre, Pueblo County, Rangely, St. Vrain, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Thompson, Widefield, Windsor and Woodland Park

Supplemental funding for at-risk students – $28.1 million

Adams 12-Five Star, Bayfield, Brighton, Buena Vista, Delta, Florence, Fountain, Jefferson, Johnstown, Keenseburg, Mesa Valley, Parachute, Pueblo County, St. Vrain, Salida, Thompson, Widefield and Woodland Park

Leaving money on the table?

SB 13-213 creates a formula for determining how much each district “should” contribute to total costs through its property taxes and how much the state should be responsible for. The formula uses property values, income of district residents and percentages of at-risk students.

Under that calculation, many districts are currently raising less local revenue than they could – about $81.8 million statewide. SB 13-213 does not reduce the amount of state money to such districts, but they theoretically could spend more money on their students – if voters approved local tax-rate increases.

The per-pupil figures in this article and the accompanying database are based on current levels of district support and would be higher if all districts paid their full local amounts. With full district support the average statewide per-pupil funding is estimated at $7,522.

The affected districts are:

Aguilar, Akron, Arikaree, Ault-Highland, Bayfield, Bennett, Bethune, Branson, Briggsdale, Burlington, Byers, Campo, Cheyenne (Cheyenne County), Colorado Springs 11, Cripple Creek, Crowley, DeBeque, Delta, Dolores (Dolores County), Dolores (Montezuma County), Durango, Eads, Eagle, Elbert, Falcon, Florence, Fountain, Fort Lupton, Gilpin, Gunnison, Hanover, Harrison, Hayden, Hi Plains, Hoehne, Idalia, Ignacio, Johnstown, Keenesburg, Kim, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Lamar, Lewis-Palmer, Liberty, Limon, McClave, Mancos, Manitou Springs, Manzanola, Mesa Valley, Miami-Yoder, Montrose, Mountain Valley, North Conejos, North Park, Norwood, Ouray, Parachute, Pawnee, Peyton, Plainview, Plateau, Plateau Valley, Platte Canyon, Platte Valley (Sedgwick County), Prairie, Primero, Pritchett, Rangely, Ridgway, Rifle, Roaring Fork, St. Vrain, Salida, Silverton, Steamboat Springs, Swink, Telluride, Thompson, Walsh, West End, Widefield, Woodland Park, Woodlin and Wray

Colorado Votes 2018

Amendment 73: Understanding the tax increase for education on your Colorado ballot

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Thousands of Colorado teachers protested for more education funding in April. What will voters say in November?

Colorado voters face an important education decision this November: whether to approve a major statewide tax increase for schools. This request represents the third time in recent years that Colorado voters have been asked to put more money into schools.

The last two times, they gave a resounding no. Amendment 73 comes on the heels of teacher protests here and around the nation that have raised awareness of low pay and other unmet classroom needs.

Proponents of the measure say Colorado schools can’t keep doing more with less and need new revenue to do right by students. Opponents say that raising taxes will hurt the state’s economic prosperity without necessarily improving student outcomes.

Here’s what you need to know to make a decision:

What does Amendment 73 do?

This measure would create a graduated income tax for people earning more than $150,000 a year and would raise the state corporate tax rate. It also would change the assessment rate — the portion of your property value that is taxed — for commercial and residential property.

Altogether, these changes are projected to raise an additional $1.6 billion a year for preschool through 12th-grade education. That’s in addition to the roughly $9.7 billion in federal, state, and local money that Colorado will spend this year on schools.

The amendment raises the base amount Colorado is required to spend on each student, and it also dedicates money to preschool spots, full-day kindergarten, students with disabilities, those learning English, and those identified as gifted and talented.

Why is this on the ballot?

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that all tax increases be approved by voters. As for this particular tax increase, Colorado funds its schools below the national average, and since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have diverted to other areas billions of dollars constitutionally due to education.

Proponents of the measure believe the only way to adequately fund Colorado schools is to tap into an additional revenue source, like these tax increases.

Opponents counter that administrative spending has grown faster than student population and teacher salaries, and that the state and school districts could free up money for classrooms by setting new priorities.

I see amendments and propositions on my ballot. What’s the difference?

Propositions become laws and can be changed by the legislature. Amendments become part of the state constitution and can only be changed by another vote of the people. Amendments need the approval of 55 percent of voters to pass, a higher bar than propositions that only require a simple majority.

How will the money be spent? What guarantees do we have that it will reach the classroom?

Amendment 73 requires that new money “supplement and not supplant” existing funding. That means the legislature cannot redirect current spending on education and replace it with this new funding source. The amendment says the legislature should adopt a new formula for distributing money to districts that takes into account student and district characteristics, but it doesn’t lay out exactly what that should look like.

In the meantime, Amendment 73 describes specific uses for $866 million in new revenue:

  • Base spending per student will go up from $6,769 to $7,300, a 7.8 percent increase
  • Funding for full-day kindergarten. Right now, districts get a little more than half a student’s worth of funding for each kindergarten student.
  • An 8.3 percent increase for preschoool, bringing the total to $131 million
  • A 6.8 percent increase for special education, bringing the total to $296.1 million
  • An 80 percent increase for gifted and talented programs, bringing the total to $22.5 million
  • A 93 percent increase for English language learners, bringing the total to $41.6 million

The extra money that districts currently receive for students with disabilities, those learning English and those identified as gifted accounts for a fraction of the additional cost of educating them, particularly in the case of students with more significant disabilities. Districts have to use tracking codes to account for this money and ensure it goes to its intended purpose. In some districts, additional money might translate into better services for these students, while others might use the additional dedicated funding to free up other money.

That leaves $738.6 million that can be spent on public education as determined by the legislature. Once that money lands in school district coffers, they have broad discretion over how to spend it. This is by design and part of an effort to get buy-in from around the state. Many school boards have passed non-binding resolutions promising to spend the money on teacher pay, more mental health supports for students, and lower class sizes.

In turn, opponents have criticized the lack of specificity as a blank check that won’t necessarily increase teacher salaries or improve student outcomes.

A recent analysis from EdChoice found that since 1992, teacher salaries in Colorado had fallen even as per-student funding and the number of administrators had increased. Colorado Department of Education records show that instructional staff — teachers, counselors, speech language pathologists, school nurses — increased by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016 while administrative staff increased by 34 percent. School administrators argue these positions are necessary to support the work that teachers do and keep districts in compliance with a host of new state and federal regulations. In smaller districts, administrators often wear multiple hats. When we ask teachers about this issue, some of them share the concern that too much money gets spent on central administration, even as they also believe schools need more money overall

You can look up how much your district spends here.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are ‘underfunded’? Compared to what? How underfunded?

There are several different ways to look at this. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, ranks Colorado 28th in per pupil spending when state, local, and federal money is combined and puts Colorado about $758 per student below the national average. Education Week does a more complex ranking that takes into account regional cost differences and puts Colorado nearly $2,800 below the national average. Colorado teacher salaries are among the least competitive in the nation, making it hard to recruit and retain educators. More than 100 of Colorado’s 178 school districts operate on four-day weeks.

Back in 2000, after previous years of budget cuts, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by population plus inflation. But starting with the Great Recession, Colorado lawmakers have not allocated all the money required by that amendment. Over the past 10 years, Colorado schools have missed out on $7.5 billion the law requires them to receive. The courts have upheld this budget maneuver. Money from Amendment 73 could not be reallocated during the next downturn, protecting schools but potentially creating other budget problems for the state.

Colorado also gets low marks on equity. Colorado spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity. Per-student spending varies widely around the state, with rich districts often getting more state money than poor ones. Some districts have convinced voters to approve local property tax increases, while other have not — or have such low tax bases that voters would need to take on large increases to generate much benefit. The additional funding from these local tax increases varies from $32 to $5,024 per student.

Amendment 73 wouldn’t change these structural problems with school funding. It would give state lawmakers more money with which to level the playing field. Right now, sending more money to some districts would require reducing funding to others, creating a political minefield.

Will I pay more in income taxes if Amendment 73 passes?

People who earn up to $150,000 a year will keep paying the same 4.63 percent state income tax rate they do now. Those earning more will pay a sliding increase starting at 5 percent for income from $150,001 to $200,000 up to 8.25 percent for income over $500,000. Someone with taxable income of $200,000 would pay an extra $185 a year, while someone with $1 million in taxable income would pay an extra $24,395, according to a fiscal analysis by the state.

The increases will affect about 8 percent of individual and joint income tax filers. Amendment 73 does not include a provision to adjust the income threshold for inflation, so it’s possible that more taxpayers will pay these higher rates in the future.

This change would generate most of the new revenue under Amendment 73.

What’s the effect on corporate taxes?

Amendment 73 would raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent. You can see how that compares to other states’ corporate income tax rates here. The average corporate income taxpayer would owe an additional $14,139, according to state fiscal analysts.

Would Amendment 73 raise my property taxes?

This is a complicated question. Amendment 73 does not raise property tax rates anywhere in the state. But if it passes, residential property owners will pay more in 2019 than they otherwise would have, while owners of non-residential property will pay less.

Amendment 73 fixes the assessment rate at 7 percent for residential and 24 percent for non-residential property. That’s lower than it is now, but other constitutional provisions would have pushed the residential rate even lower in 2019. 

Exactly how much more or less you pay will depend on your property value, real estate trends in your community, and local tax rates.

This represents a partial fix to a complicated fiscal problem that has bedeviled Colorado lawmakers and the administrators of rural taxing entities — school districts, fire protection districts, and others — for years.

In Colorado, your property is assessed at close to market value, but your local tax rate only applies to a portion of that value. That’s the assessment rate. Another constitutional provision known as the Gallagher Amendment ensures that non-residential property owners always pay a larger share of property taxes than homeowners. Since 1982, when the Gallagher Amendment was approved by voters, property values along Colorado’s developed Front Range have skyrocketed, putting the assessment ratios between residential and other property seriously out of whack. Those ratios apply statewide, and many rural communities have seen their already sparse tax base hollowed out.

In the case of schools, that’s meant the state government has had to backfill more and more money that used to be generated by local taxes. Amendment 73 includes a provision to hold the assessment rates steady just for schools for two reasons. One is that it provides property tax relief to ranchers and farmers, which the measure’s backers hope bolsters support in parts of the state that are traditionally more hostile to tax increases. The other is that it ensures the new tax revenue generated by the amendment doesn’t just backfill an ever-deepening hole in rural districts.

Residential assessment rates will continue to drop for other taxing entities, creating an even more complex system, unless the state succeeds in a more comprehensive Gallagher fix.

Don’t schools get a lot of marijuana money already?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. 

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates. Marijuana money is also set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can use to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

However, the marijuana money available to schools represents a tiny fraction of total education spending, and most of it can’t be spent on basic needs like teacher salaries or classroom materials.

 

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.