On Tuesday, the Denver school board will choose an interim superintendent. That person will fill the top leadership spot in the state’s largest school district while longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg takes an unprecedented (and unpaid) six-month break.
The seven-member school board has been tight-lipped about the selection process. But there are three likely scenarios: choosing between Boasberg’s two top lieutenants, picking a lower-profile district official or tapping an outsider with ties to Denver Public Schools.
Whether the choice will signal anything about the direction of the district is up for debate.
The structure of the DPS senior leadership team suggests two strong candidates: Susana Cordova, chief of schools, and Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief academic and innovation officer.
Cordova and Whitehead-Bust are effectively Boasberg’s top deputies. In 2014, Boasberg reshuffled his leadership team and rebranded some departments. Cordova was put in charge of district-run schools and innovation schools, which have more autonomy and flexibility when it comes to things such as hiring teachers. Whitehead-Bust oversees charter schools.
Under the unique division of labor, Whitehead-Bust is responsible for developing academic policies, whereas Cordova coordinates efforts to put those policies into practice.
Both women worked their way up in DPS. But they started from different places.
Cordova is a Denver native and DPS graduate who began her career as a bilingual teacher at a traditional middle school in northwest Denver and then taught at West High School.
Whitehead-Bust is a former consultant who helped start more than 15 charter schools across the country. She was the founding principal of Highline Academy, a successful DPS charter.
“From the outside, it would appear they’re both in contention to be the interim or the next superintendent, and they’re each trying to prove their case,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has provided grant funding to DPS.
But Lewis doesn’t think either will get the interim job.
“If Tom chooses one, he chooses the favorite child,” he said. “I think he’s going to choose someone else.”
One possibility: David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer.
Suppes came to DPS at the same time and from the same place as Boasberg. Both men left Level 3 Communications, a telecommunications company in Broomfield, in 2007 to work for DPS under the leadership of Michael Bennet.
Under Bennet, Boasberg was chief operating officer and Suppes was chief strategy officer. When Bennet left in 2009 to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, Boasberg became superintendent and Suppes took Boasberg’s former job.
In that role, Suppes oversees several important departments including transportation, facilities, finance and enrollment. He was instrumental in the 2008 bond and 2012 bond and mill levy, in which voters approved extra taxes to improve school buildings and programming.
The district is gearing up to ask voters for more money in the fall of 2016. The interim superintendent will likely be involved in planning the campaign.
Another possibility is that the board will choose someone who doesn’t currently work for the district, such as a former employee or board member.
“It would not surprise me if it’s an external choice,” said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “If they have it right with the senior leadership, they might not want to shift around the positions.”
It seems less likely that the interim superintendent will be someone unfamiliar with DPS, which in the last ten years has put in place a series of reforms such as opening a mix of charter and traditional schools to replace schools where kids aren’t making academic progress, and paying teachers based in part on how their students score on tests.
“I just can’t imagine it would be somebody totally outside,” said former board member Jeannie Kaplan, a critic of DPS’s reforms. “Six months isn’t a very long time. And if Tom really is going to come back, it seems like the learning curve would be so steep, it’s hardly worth the effort.”
Boasberg announced two weeks ago that he’s planning to be gone from January through June, living and traveling in Latin America with his wife and three kids. He told Chalkbeat that he hopes to lead the district for several years after his return. He announced his plans shortly after an election that saw all seven board seats align with his vision of school reform.
Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the board hasn’t asked the opinion of the teachers union, which has also been critical of the district.
Ultimately, she said, the decision isn’t likely to have a big impact on teachers.
“If the person really is a seat-warmer, it will feel the same,” Shamburg said.
“We aren’t sweating it,” she added, “because whoever it is, we have to deal with it.”
Given the disparate backgrounds of Boasberg’s top lieutenants — Cordova started her career as a teacher in a traditional school, while Whitehead-Bust is a former charter school principal — some observers said that choosing one of them could send a message about the value of school autonomy and decentralization.
DPS is already headed down that path: Starting this year, the district offered all school principals the chance to choose their own curriculum, teacher training and student tests.
“Choosing one over another would signal to the larger community that there might be a greater emphasis toward decentralization or not going as quickly toward decentralization,” said Van Schoales, chief executive officer of the pro-reform advocacy group A-Plus Denver.
But others cautioned against reading too much into it.
“I think the only signal there is that this is the person that the board felt is best positioned to move in the direction that Tom has moved,” said former board member Nate Easley, who is executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
“I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it because Tom is committed to coming back,” said Mike Vaughn, who served as DPS’s chief communications officer for five years under Boasberg.
“It’s easy to say, hard to do.”