Acting Super

Susana Cordova named acting superintendent of Denver Public Schools

Susana Cordova will serve as interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Susana Cordova, a former teacher and principal who currently works as one of Denver Public Schools’ senior administrators, will be acting superintendent from January to July, when top boss Tom Boasberg is on a six-month unpaid leave.

Cordova currently serves as chief of schools. In that role, she’s in charge of traditional district-run schools and innovation schools, which have more autonomy when it comes to things such as hiring teachers and setting the school calendar. (Another administrator, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, is in charge of charter schools.) Cordova oversees the leaders of district-run and innovation schools, including the principals, and helps put policy into practice.

The seven-member school board voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint her acting superintendent.

“She’s an extraordinary leader,” Boasberg said, “and she truly represents the best of the Denver Public Schools. She is so thoughtful and innovative and courageous and caring and passionate.”

“I’ve been so impressed in the time that I’ve been on this board with Susana’s knowledge of everything that goes on in this district at every level,” said board member Mike Johnson. “She’s so incredibly hardworking. She’s so honest and she’s patient and gets along with people extremely well.”

Cordova said she is humbled and excited.

“This is not a chance for us to pause,” she said. DPS students only have one shot at the grade they’re in, Cordova added. “It’s full speed ahead.”

Cordova is expected to lead the district through several big issues next year, including teacher contract negotiations, contentious decisions about which schools to close and which to open, and preparations for asking voters in November to approve tax increases, in the form of a bond and mill levy, to improve school buildings and pay for additional programming.

Cordova and Boasberg mentioned other priorities as well, including continuing to work on teacher training and early literacy efforts and continuing to provide individual schools more flexibility when it comes to decisions such as which curriculum and tests to use.

Boasberg announced last month that he plans to take six months off to live and travel in Latin America with his wife Carin and three kids: Nola, 15; Ella,13; and Calvin, 11.

In a letter to DPS staff on November 16, he explained that his family hopes “to learn to speak Spanish well, to learn about different cultures and to spend a lot more time together as a family than I have been able to spend over these years as superintendent.” The family lives in Boulder.

The board voted on Tuesday to amend Boasberg’s contract to allow him to take the unpaid leave. The contract amendment says Boasberg will be gone from January 4 through no later than July 15, and that he won’t receive compensation during that time. His contract goes through 2017.

The board also approved a contract for Cordova. It says she will be paid an additional $1,666.66 for every month she serves as acting superintendent. Cordova’s current annual salary is $196,000.

In addition, the board members elected Anne Rowe to serve as board president. Rowe was previously vice president.

“We all have a role to play,” Rowe said, “and I am surrounded by leaders.”

Rowe will take over from Happy Haynes, who was president for the past two years. Haynes narrowly won re-election last month, edging out a competitor critical of the district’s direction to hold on to her at-large board seat.

Before the election, the Denver Board of Ethics recommended that if Haynes were re-elected, she abstain from continuing to serve as an officer. Haynes sought the ethics board’s opinion after Mayor Michael Hancock appointed her head of the city’s parks and recreation department in September.

“The demands on your time and energies in your dual roles…would appear to make this a prudent choice that you are in the best position to ultimately evaluate,” the board opined.

However, on Tuesday, Haynes was elected secretary of the board. Board member Rosemary Rodriguez was also nominated but she declined, explaining that the next year would be busy for her.

Board member Barbara O’Brien, who served as lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011 before being elected to the DPS board in 2013, was chosen as vice president. Johnson was elected board treasurer.

Rowe, who represents southeast Denver, easily won her re-election campaign last month. New board member Lisa Flores also won an open seat to represent west and northwest Denver.

Their victories ensured that all seven board seats are occupied by members who are supportive of Boasberg’s efforts to reform DPS. Under Boasberg, the district’s strategies have included closing underperforming schools, paying teachers based partly on how their students do on tests, and authorizing a mix of new charter schools and traditional district-run schools.

But those reforms have produced mixed results. Enrollment has grown to more than 90,000 students and those kids are showing improvement on state tests compared to their peers

However, scores from tests taken in the spring of 2014 showed that just 60 percent of DPS third-graders were proficient in reading and math. And achievement gaps between white and minority students are large and widening. While black and Latino students are making gains, white students are improving at a faster rate. District- and school-level results from new standardized tests taken in the spring of 2015 are due to be released later this month.

Cordova is a Denver native and a graduate of Lincoln High School. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver and has a master’s degree in education administration, and curriculum and instruction, from the University of Colorado.

She started her teaching career at Horace Mann Middle School in northwest Denver, where she taught English and Spanish in a dual-language program. She went on to teach English and English as a Second Language at West High School and eventually became the principal of the now-shuttered Remington Elementary School, also in northwest Denver.

Her biography on the DPS website notes that students at Remington made gains on state reading tests during her tenure, which ended in 2002. The school was closed in 2008 due to low enrollment and performance. The academic programs at West and Horace Mann have since been reinvented for similar reasons.

Cordova joined the DPS administration in 2002, first serving as the district’s literacy director. Over the past 13 years, she has worked on several key projects, including the design of ProComp, the pay-for-performance program for teachers; the creation of LEAP and LEAD, the systems that measure the effectiveness of teachers and principals; and the redevelopment of the district’s approach to educating English language learners.

She began her current position, as chief of schools, in 2014. Cordova said her duties will likely be split between other staff members while she’s serving as acting superintendent.

Editor’s note: DPS board president Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. Frank Rowe’s position is not part of Chalkbeat’s news operation.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.