Party of Seven

Colorado state board and education commissioner held a secret meeting — but accomplished nothing

On the first Wednesday in March, six of the seven members of the State Board of Education met for a private dinner with the man who was their unanimous pick for education commissioner.

Rich Crandall told them he needed direction. The former Arizona lawmaker and businessman, who briefly served as education chief in Wyoming, had been getting conflicting guidance from board members, he later told Chalkbeat.

Board chairman Steve Durham suggested dinner at the University Club, where the Republican lobbyist from Colorado Springs is a member.

The gathering didn’t go as well as anyone had hoped. Over the course of two hours, board members aired grievances about their pet-peeve education policies and made little headway identifying priorities from a laundry list Crandall proposed as a starting point, according to interviews with participants and public records obtained by Chalkbeat.

Under Colorado open meetings law, meetings of two or more members of state public bodies must be open to the public. But the board issued no public notice and took no minutes, officials said.

In an interview, Durham portrayed the meeting as a social gathering and thus not subject to the state’s open meetings law. But records obtained by Chalkbeat show a detailed discussion was planned to discuss setting key education policy priorities. A department of education spokeswoman acknowledged that the meeting violated state law.

As a result of questions raised by Chalkbeat, board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, called on the board to review the law and to organize a public retreat to discuss broader education policy and how the board should proceed.

Disclosure of the tensions before and after the March meeting shed more light on Crandall’s brief relationship with the board. Some observers believed the board coalescing on hiring Crandall in December was a turning point after a divisive period.

But Crandall resigned in mid-May. His departure came after a string of resignations by top department officials and criticism that he didn’t give clear direction to staff. Crandall agreed to resign “in lieu of termination” and cite personal reasons, according to a settlement agreement.

Now, the state is again without a chief schools officer as Colorado faces critical decisions about issues ranging from how to respond to changes brought by a new federal education law to taking action against schools that are failing low-income students.

Katy Anthes, the department’s chief of staff, is serving as interim commissioner. The board has not signaled when it will begin a search for a permanent commissioner.

‘A social opportunity’

By the time Crandall had asked for clearer marching orders, he had already met with almost every member of the State Board individually — in some cases, two or three times.

Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.
PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

Before the dinner, Crandall sent board members a list of some 25 education topics ranging from accountability to school choice to the nation’s new federal law, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request. He asked board members to arrive with the list printed and four to five topics circled.

“I am hoping this list spurs a conversation toward areas we may want to focus on the next one to three years,” he wrote.

He also asked board members to be prepared to answer the question: What is the “appropriate outcome for a K-12 education?”

“This will help drive our work at the Department,” Crandall wrote.

Durham denied that topics listed in the email were discussed.

“It was just a social opportunity to get to know the commissioner a little better,” Durham said.

But other board members acknowledged that items on the list, as well as others, were discussed in broad terms.

Colorado’s open meeting law requires that when two or more state elected officials meet to discuss matters related to their policy making function, the public must be notified at least 24 hours in advance. Minutes are also to be kept. Neither happened with the March meeting.

“This is a discussion that should have taken place at a public meeting,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a group of journalists, organizations and individuals promoting transparency. (Chalkbeat is a member of the coalition.)

There are exceptions to the state’s open meeting law. Chief among them is a “chance meeting or social gathering at which discussion of public business is not the central purpose.”

“If it truly was a social gathering and they were there to talk about their summer vacation plans or the presidential election, then that’s fine,” Roberts said. “But if it’s a meeting where they talk about their own policy goals, even if it’s at a 30,000-foot-view level, then it’s an open meeting.”

Crandall, in an interview, didn’t dispute the meeting should have been public. When asked why the public wasn’t notified of the meeting, he said it wasn’t his responsibility.

“The board has its own people,” he said, referring to board staff.

Colorado Department of Education spokeswoman Dana Smith said the meeting violated state law.

“Even though the primary purpose was social, with the commissioner’s subjects he wanted to talk about, we should have noticed the meeting,” Smith said in an interview.

She described it as an oversight and pledged that the department would ensure it does not happen again.

‘Little accomplished’

Crandall and board members agree that little came into focus that evening.

Steve Durham
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham

“There was very little accomplished that night as far as a strategic plan for the state board of education,” Crandall said. “It was more board members sharing their displeasure with education topics like Common Core, turnaround efforts, PARCC (state tests). I could give you a long list.”

Republican Deb Scheffel of Parker remembers the evening being more cordial.

“We talked broadly about him coming to Colorado and the role of the commissioner, about a lot of issues we’re dealing with,” she said. “I’m sure we did talk about issues — generally speaking, about what is Colorado facing, where are right now with education reform. But those are broad topics.”

Goff, of Arvada, said Crandall’s list was daunting.

“We tried to make a start on this list,” she said. “But it’s a huge list. Rich said he had some things on his mind he wanted to talk about. I’m gonna say it — we didn’t make a lot of headway with what I would interpret as productive progress.”

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder had a prior engagement and did not attend the meeting.

‘Easier to suggest now’

As governing boards change hands, members often take time to step back and hold retreats to discuss strategic vision.

Other times, like in the case of the Denver school board in 2009, retreats are held to mend wounds. Those meetings, like board meetings where votes are taken, are posted and open to the public and press to attend.

The State Board of Education has not held a retreat since the three new members — Durham, Republican Joyce Rankin of Carbondale and Democrat Val Flores of Denver — joined the board during the last two year. Instead, the board has made headlines for a number of controversies.

In 2015, a fractured board refused to set cut scores on the state’s social studies test halting the release of the results and spent months embroiled in a debate about a long running health survey given to Colorado’s middle and high schools.

More recently, the board was split on whether to recognize a seal of biliteracy on Colorado students diploma, but made is a requirement that all elementary school students who speak a second language be tested in both English and Spanish to identify reading disabilities despite objections from school districts.

Former State Board chairwoman Marcia Neal attempted to pull together a retreat before she resigned one year ago, citing health issues and the board’s dysfunction.

Board member Goff said now may be the time for the board to have a retreat.

“I wish we had a plan to have one,” she said. “I think this board is in a pretty good place to get some things accomplished through a more formal (retreat). …. I think it will be easier to suggest now.”

Rich Crandall’s email

Update: This post has been updated to better reflect Rich Crandall’s job history. He briefly served as the chief schools officer in Wyoming. 

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”