Put on your public face

In the first year for Denver board, no public spats and more behind-the-scenes work

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Denver Public Schools Board President Happy Haynes, center, in March recognized the East High School boy's basketball team for winning the state's championship tournament. Under Haynes' leadership Denver's school board has displayed few disagreements in public.

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This story was the result of Chalkbeat’s new project BoardTracker, which monitors how Denver School Board members voted. Take a look and tell us if there’s anything else we should look at by email [email protected] or on Twitter @ChalkbeatCO.

It’s been much quieter in Denver Public Schools’ board room since the induction of a new board last November — and that might be thanks to the previous board’s high profile spats.

Every issue to come before Denver’s school board has passed in the ten months since a new slate of members was voted in, an examination of the board’s voting records reveal. What’s more, most of those votes have been unanimous.

That’s a distinct change from the workings of the district’s previous board, whose meetings were often marked by contentious debates and split votes. Last fall, Denver voters elected a slate of candidates largely supportive of the district’s agenda for transforming schools.

That came on the heels of several years of high-profile and heated debates between board members that culminated in a divisive process to replace a former board member, Nate Easley, who resigned. In previous years, the board split 4-3 on many issues with the minority votes — former board members Andrea Mérida and Jeannie Kaplan, current board member Arturo Jimenez — frequently opposing the district agenda backed by the majority.

These days, board meetings are far less likely to resemble the climax of a tense political drama. Instead of public spats, board members said they work to resolve disagreements before they ever reach the board table. But experts say that the quieting of those noisy disputes can come at a cost to public dialogue and may be a direct result of the previous years of tension.

“Parents hate it when school boards argue,” said Kris Amundsen, the executive director the National Association of State Boards of Education and a former member of a divided board. “When a number of us moved on, they elected a school board that was committed, most of all, to reaching harmony.”

Barbara O’Brien, one of the district’s at-large members elected last fall, said that’s the feedback she has gotten from constituents.

“What I’ve heard is we’re so glad there’s a board that’s doing its job,” said O’Brien.

Still, discontent over the board’s unified front has cropped up. During campaign season, O’Brien and other candidates were met with suspicion that they would simply rubber-stamp what the district brought before them.

Those criticisms still linger among opponents of the district’s approach to overhauling schools. At a recent community gathering in far northeast Denver, community members criticized the board for failing to listen to their concerns and for adopting a corporate-style reform agenda.

“Except Arturo [Jimenez], they do exactly what [Denver superintendentTom Boasberg] and his staff of mostly non-educators tell them to,” said Mary Sam, a former DPS teacher and community activist, afterwards.

But O’Brien says that she and other board members have been highly critical of the district, behind closed doors.

“Tom [Boasberg] has pushed back on me and I’ve pushed back on him,” she said. “All that’s very healthy when we’re sitting around a table.”

Doing it in public would mean that less gets done, says board member Landri Taylor.

“When I came on in 2013, we spent a lot of time on things that did not make a difference,” said Taylor. “We were stuck in the conversation of disagreement. We have to move forward.”

Board members said most conversation is conducted in one-on-one or two-on-one meetings, or by email, with district staff or between board members. That practice, while within the bounds of the law, may approach actions that have created trouble for other public boards.

The Denver school board, like other public boards, is subject to open meeting laws, which mandate that if a quorum of board members is present, the meeting must be made public. Denver board members said their conversations did not reach that threshold nor did they “daisychain” or meet successively until all had spoken.

The board’s actions are part of a larger nationwide trend towards school boards maintaining public unity, in spite of personal disagreements. Districts elsewhere have adopted policies that prevent individual board members from speaking to the press or to designate a spokesperson. That’s not the case in Denver and isn’t on the table but board members said that they preferred to maintain the collegial spirit.

But Amundsen says that impulse, while a good one, can lead to a loss of transparency and obscure public input.

“If you believe part of the role of the school board is to discuss the issue, not just decide the issue, especially if they’re going to lose the vote, [board members] need to have their say,” she said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean shouting matches in board meeting.

“It doesn’t have to be mean and contentious,” said Amundsen. “It does have to be visible.”

She suggests mentioning in public meetings disagreements that occur behind closed doors.

“It can be, “I want to thank the superintendent because he had originally proposed we make the start time at X time,” Amundsen said. “Thanks to our collaboration, it’s now at Y time.”

Jimenez, the only board member to have submitted a no vote since last fall, agreed with Amundsen’s counsel.

“I know they’re critical and I know they’re thoughtful but they’re unwilling to bring it out in public,” he said.

Jimenez attributes what he calls the “passivity” of the board to the business-style education reform he says pervades the district.

“We’re not the board of a private corporation that acts in unison in public and resolves our conflict in private so we protect our share of stock,” he said. “The board should be a check on the district and we should ensure that there is accountability.  I don’t think we’re doing it.”

Part of that, he says, is simply speaking up.

“There is this unspoken line where we aren’t supposed to criticize the superintendent and the district,” said Jimenez. “I hope that changes.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.