Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova on eve of strike: ‘This is an issue of equity’

Barely a month since taking charge of Colorado’s largest school district, Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova is reckoning with a teachers strike.

Teachers are set to start picketing Monday after union members voted to strike, the governor turned away a district request to step in and delay it, and a final flurry of negotiations failed to unlock a compromise over ProComp, the district’s complicated pay-for-performance system that is the subject of negotiations.

We sat down with Cordova on Sunday as her staff prepared for the walkouts. We talked about the district’s latest proposal, its determination to keep schools open, the size of the district’s central administration staff, and how what is happening in Denver is connected to teacher activism nationwide and the local community’s feelings about Denver’s education reform efforts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Saturday night, you brought a new proposal to the table with deeper cuts to district central staff and elimination of executive bonuses, with the money going to increase bonuses for teachers in “highest priority” schools. The union wants to do away with those bonuses and use that money to raise base pay for all teachers. Why make this move, and why did you call it significant?

A: ProComp was initially designed to try to motivate the behavior we need to address the biggest problems in our system. And the biggest problems are closing the opportunity gap and teacher retention in the highest priority schools. So much of what we are doing in our proposal is trying to emphasize equity. At the end of the day, the most important thing we can do with our proposal is reward teachers in their base salaries and in the kinds of jobs we know we need to close the gaps we have. Our proposal, along with the incentives, also pays a significant base pay increase for everyone. 

I want to say it over and over and over again that this is an issue of equity. And equity isn’t equal. And I don’t believe it’s in our city’s best interest to take money out of the hands of teachers working in higher poverty places to spread around the city so everyone gets an increase.

Q: How confident are you in your ability to keep schools open during the strike?

A: We’re going to approach this as thoughtfully as possible. Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our students. If at any point we are concerned about safety, we will make the decision to close a school. That is something we won’t compromise on.

Q: Along with tapping your regular pool of substitute teachers and trying to expand it, the district told central administration staff to be all-hands-on-deck and ready to go into schools. Some of these employees are the very same people who would lose their jobs in the cuts to central office you’ve proposed. How do you have those conversations?

A: It’s really challenging. Probably one of the hardest things I am having to do right now is talking to people who are really dedicated people who care about kids, to ask them to go cover in schools and then come back to the possibility that their job is going to be eliminated.

Whether you think a strike is the right thing or the wrong thing, there is no one who thinks it’s not the best thing to have grownups taking care of students. I am incredibly proud of the people who have reached out to me to tell them how focused they are on kids.

Q: Taking the context of the current negotiations out of it, is the central office too big? Does it need to cut?

A: Part of what I applied on was this concept of, “I think we need to have a bigger impact, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to be the size of the team that we are.” This is a good time to reevaluate how we can make an impact.  

Q: These negotiations are about ProComp, but is this also about something more?

A: Yes, I think we are in the middle of a national moment. Teachers in Denver as well as in other places are feeling frustrated, disrespected, undervalued. I think that’s terrible. I went into teaching myself with a real passion to make a difference in the world. I know that’s true of our teachers as well. I don’t think for the most part teachers are going into the job for the money. Money matters. And certainly, a part of this is about the money. But it’s also about a lot of those other things that are happening. My hope would be that once we are past these negotiations, we will be able to sit down and engage in a collaborative way so that here in Denver, that storyline can feel different.

Q: What do you think has fueled that movement? Political winds nationally? What else?

A: There are national contextual aspects and very local contextual aspects. The political climate we have nationwide is a climate that has provided far greater divisions than it has brought people together. If you look at Denver, L.A., and potentially Oakland (where a strike also could be in the offing), these are primarily liberal, Democratic places. That feels a little bit different here. Some of the local context here is, I think teachers and parents are really frustrated with the lack of opportunity to collaboratively engage around the improvement of our schools. I said that when I was applying: It is something that frustrated me as a member of DPS, both before I was on (previous superintendent) Tom Boasberg’s cabinet, and when I worked for Tom. I have deep roots in the city. I am a DPS grad, a DPS parent, and I plan to be a DPS retiree at some point. I am not going away from Denver. I understand why people feel frustrated – they feel like they don’t have a voice in their schools. Part of the reason I wanted to be superintendent is I wanted to change that. I know people are frustrated with how things have worked over the past 10 years.

Q: Some people are frustrated because they don’t feel heard, and also because they don’t like what the district’s done. You’ve been a part of this, you have been in many district roles. How much of the frustration among teachers now and among community members who support them is with Denver’s reforms or direction?

A: Certainly, while I was applying for the superintendency, I heard from lots of people who are very frustrated around the reforms. But we’ve also heard from people who really love their school and their school is a direct manifestation of what those reforms have looked like. Innovation schools. The kind of choices we have. Montessori. IB. Expeditionary Learning. The opportunity to find the right fit for your kid. We also hear from parents how much they appreciate that. Not everybody speaks with one voice on that. I do think a lot of what we are seeing now is some of the pent-up frustration of the folks who have not been as satisfied with what reforms have produced.

There are many, many things we can point to as big improvements over the last 15 years. Graduation rates are up. Remediation rates are down. Dropouts are down. Enrollment is significantly higher. We were a district where for many years you might like your elementary school, you might like your high school, but you pulled your kids out for middle school. And middle schools are thriving in many, many parts of the city. A lot of that is sort of the chicken-egg — the schools are better, the neighborhoods get better, the neighborhoods get better, the schools get better. A lot of that is what’s happened. And that has not been the experience of all communities in the last 15 years. So even though our black and our brown children are performing significantly higher than they were, they have not accelerated at the same pace as their white peers or their peers who don’t qualify for free lunch. We have big, big work to do on that.

Q: Some district reform efforts have slowed down. The school closure policy is on hold. The last two calls for new quality schools have not called for any new schools. Is that because of changing circumstances, or does it say something else?

A: We’re just not growing at same pace. We saw rapid expansion of schools of all kinds: charter and district schools during a time when enrollment in our city was dramatically increasing.  That is not where we are. We are going to be in a position where we are going to have to think differently about our schools. One of the things we shared with our board of education in our budget forecast, within the next five years we expect that we’ll have 20 schools that are under 200 kids if we do nothing now, based on the neighborhood changes. You can’t run a school on a budget you get for 200 kids. At under 200 kids, you don’t even have enough funds to have a teacher at every grade level. We’re in a different environment. So I think we’re going to have to look at what reforms look like in this context in a different way. We have a very large and troubling gap. We need reform. It’s going to need to look different.

Q: What do you think that will look like?

A: My hope is that we’re going to be working on that in collaboration with our teachers and our community.

Editor’s note: We have requested a similar interview with Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.