Amid heated community debate, Denver extends time for superintendent search

More than 100 people gathered at Abraham Lincoln High School to give feedback on the Denver superintendent search. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

More than 100 people gathered at Abraham Lincoln High School to give feedback on the Denver superintendent search. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

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By Melanie Asmar,  Chalkbeat 

The Denver school board has pushed back the date by which it will name finalists for the superintendent job from October to November. The extension follows objections to what some students and parents said was a too-tight timeline for gathering community feedback, and a rocky start to that process. One heated exchange at a community meeting has even led to a police investigation.

The initial public meetings have surfaced longstanding tensions between those who believe in the school district’s vision and those who don’t. One point of agreement, however, has emerged from community members so far: The next superintendent should be an educator.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced in July that he would step down in mid-October after nearly 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools. Boasberg came to the district from a telecommunications company, where he was a senior executive. Though he once taught public school in Hong Kong, the vast majority of his career was not spent in a classroom.

The school board is tasked with hiring his replacement and has been soliciting feedback across the city on the characteristics and qualifications the next superintendent should have. On Tuesday, it held the first of a series of regional meetings planned for this month.

But even the format of that meeting generated pushback. The atmosphere inside the Abraham Lincoln High School cafeteria got heated right away when a few people loudly objected to the plan that the more than 100 attendees break into small discussion groups.

“We are voters and we want representation!” one man said. “We want our voices to be heard!”

On Thursday, the board announced it would lengthen its search. Instead of naming superintendent finalists by Oct. 15, the board will aim to name finalists by Nov. 26 and make a decision by Dec. 10. An interim superintendent will be appointed to fill the gap.

The board also announced it had hired Dimension Strategies, a Denver-based political consulting firm that board members noted is both minority- and women-owned. One of the founding partners is Katherine Archuleta, who started her career as a Denver Public Schools teacher before getting into politics and eventually working for the Obama administration.

The firm will help ensure the feedback meetings provide “both breadth and depth, because that’s what our community deserves,” board member Angela Cobián said. The decision to hire a facilitator was made a while ago and was not based on what happened this week, she said.

At the regional meeting on Tuesday and a public comment session on Thursday, many participants said the next superintendent should be a person of color. About three-quarters of the nearly 93,000 students in Denver Public Schools are Hispanic, black, Asian, or Native American. The past three superintendents have been white men.

“We prefer a superintendent who represents the majority of our student population,” Jadyn Nguyen, a senior at DSST: Green Valley Ranch charter high school, told the board Thursday.

Other qualities that were mentioned included integrity, honesty, and transparency. Many people said the superintendent should be bilingual because more than a third of all Denver students are English language learners. Others said the superintendent should live in Denver and send his or her own children to Denver Public Schools. Boasberg does not.

Most agreed the next leader should increase the number of school psychologists, social workers, and counselors, and decrease punitive discipline, both things Boasberg has done.

There was also consensus on the need for the next superintendent to hire more teachers of color, which the district has been trying to do. But progress has been slow. About 71 percent of teachers this year are white, whereas 77 percent of students are students of color.

Dulce Bustillos, a student at Abraham Lincoln High, said learning from teachers who share her cultural background is important. “It’s just more relatable to us because they might have grown up in the same situation we are,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.

There is wide disagreement, however, on whether the next superintendent should support school choice and charter schools, or walk back Denver’s embrace of them. The district is nationally known for following a “portfolio strategy.” The controversial approach calls for cultivating a mix of traditional schools and those with more autonomy, such as charter schools; allowing families to choose between them; and closing schools with chronically low test scores.

The meetings this week attracted several groups of charter school supporters. Some parents spoke about why they chose to send their children to charters.

“When I was searching for a school, I wanted to find one that would not only help develop and foster a love of learning, but most importantly, a school in which they could also grow as people,” said Magda Renteria, a mother whose three daughters attend Rocky Mountain Prep, a homegrown elementary school charter network. “I was lucky to find that.”

But the voices of those on the opposite side have been louder. A group called Our Voice, Our Schools has published a manifesto calling for a superintendent who will, among other things, phase out the system that allows families to use one application to choose any school.

Brandon Pryor, a parent who has emerged as a lead critic, often wearing a red baseball cap that says “Make DPS Great Again” and delivering biting public comment at board meetings, got into a heated exchange with school board President Anne Rowe Tuesday. See the video below. (Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. That position is separate from Chalkbeat’s news operation.)

During the exchange, Pryor called her a racist and a white supremacist. Pryor claims Rowe poked him in the chest, while Rowe said she unintentionally tapped him while gesturing with her hands. Sgt. John White of the Denver Police Department confirmed Saturday that there is an investigation into the incident.

While it was happening, the meeting proceeded with more measured conversations. But tensions are likely to flare again, particularly in the far northeast, where some parents have strongly criticized the district’s policies for poorly serving students of color.

The board has scheduled eight more regional meetings this month, and promised to debut an online survey next week. Here is the meeting schedule:

Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Denver School of the Arts, 7111 Montview Blvd.

Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at George Washington High School, 655 S. Monaco Pkwy.

Thursday, Sept. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson High School, 3950 S. Holly St.

Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Evie Dennis Campus, 4800 Telluride St.

Saturday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m. at Montbello Recreation Center, 15555 E. 53rd Ave.

Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m. at Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center, 3334 Holly St.

Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 5:30 p.m. at South High School, 1700 E. Louisiana St.

Saturday, Sept. 29 at 11 a.m. at North High School, 2960 Speer Blvd.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.