Denver central office cuts will involve ‘real elimination of services,’ Cordova says

6 min. read
Denver Public Schools Superintendant Susana Cordova negotiates with Denver’s teachers union at the Denver Public Library, Feb. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Chalkbeat

Two months into the job, new Denver schools Superintendent Susana Cordova has cut more than 220 positions in the district's central office, in part to pay for higher teacher salaries. At the same time, she is creating about 60 new positions and reclassifying 15 others to align to her vision for the district, which zeroes in on better serving the district's black and Latino students.

The cuts will impact some services available to schools.

The changes amount to a net reduction of about 150 central office jobs and a savings of $17 million. Some of the money will be funneled into the higher teachers salaries promised by a new agreement reached this month between the district and teachers union after a three-day strike. The agreement injects a total of $23.1 million more into teacher pay next year, with some of the money coming from an anticipated increase in state education funding.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado's largest school district with approximately 93,000 students and an annual budget of over $1 billion. It also has far more administrators than the statewide average. In the 2016-17 school year, Denver had one administrator for every 7.5 instructional staff members, a category that includes teachers, librarians, nurses, and others. The statewide average was one administrator for every 11.3 instructional staff members.

Employees whose jobs will be affected began receiving notification earlier this week. The district has not yet publicly released a detailed accounting of all 220 jobs affected. Officials did say that 20 of the jobs are currently vacant. Chalkbeat has requested more information, and we'll update the story if we receive it.

But Cordova did provide some details about the restructuring in an interview. One big change, she explained, involves the supervisory structure for principals.

Now, Denver's 147 district-run schools are grouped into 12 networks overseen by supervisors called instructional superintendents. Each network is supported by a team of central office employees who advise school principals on things such as how to effectively teach literacy, math, social studies, science, and other topics. Schools are grouped in networks based partly on whether they serve elementary, middle, or high school students.

Going forward, there will be just six networks, Cordova said. The networks will be regional and will include all schools, K-12, located in that region. They will be overseen by regional superintendents and supported by far fewer central office employees.

And the support those central office employees provide will be targeted at six areas Cordova believes are essential: elementary literacy, elementary math, secondary literacy, secondary math, culturally responsive education, and instructional leadership. That last one will provide support to the teacher coaches who teach part-time and coach their peers part-time, a strategy in which Denver Public Schools has invested heavily and believes is working.

See the district's new organizational chart here.

The goal of these cuts and others, Cordova said, is to create a leaner and more effective central office focused on doing fewer things well, rather than spreading its efforts thin.

To figure out what to eliminate, Cordova said she and other top leaders took a different approach than usual. Rather than going through the budget department by department, they went through it by topic, an approach she likened to Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo's method of piling all of your clothes in the center of the room, rather than going closet to closet.

"We looked at, where in the budget are we investing in adult learning?" Cordova said, referring to training for teachers and other employees. "Where are there overlaps? Differences?"

The method helped make clear which investments were paying off and which were resulting in what she called "confusion in the field, overlap, and mixed messages." The aim, she said, "was to keep as much of the high impact and eliminate as much of the noise as possible."

But the cuts go beyond consolidation. Entire departments will be eliminated, Cordova said. For example, the district has for years had a department called the imaginarium, akin to an idea incubator that helps schools pilot new strategies. Its website lists 19 staff members, and Cordova said it has an annual budget of $2.4 million.

The imaginarium will go away, though Cordova said three positions doing the same sort of work will be part of a new impact office, whose head will report directly to Cordova. The impact office will focus on strategy development, project management, and research and evaluation, functions that previously were spread across several departments.

"A fair amount of what we're doing is trying to create greater coherence," Cordova said. But, she added, "there are real reductions, real elimination of services. I don't want to pretend or be coy."

Educators and others are already expressing disappointment on social media about some of the cuts, particularly the elimination of positions that provided support to teachers.

The reorganization is aligned to an "entry plan" Cordova released last week, she said. The plan emphasizes improving instruction for the district's black and Latino students.

"We must break the historical patterns of inequity that have resulted in far too few black, brown, and low-income children succeeding at high levels," the plan says. "We can do this if we focus our resources, energy, and talent on leveling the playing field for our most vulnerable students."

One example of how the reorganization does that, Cordova said, is the addition of a central office employee to every school network who will focus on ensuring the academic instruction delivered in schools is culturally relevant. Until now, much of that work has been optional.

The definition of culturally responsive education can vary, but experts agree it entails building relationships with students, having high expectations for students of all races and family income levels, and planning lessons with students' cultural backgrounds in mind.

Throughout the teacher pay negotiations, educators pressured the district to slash the central office budget, which they characterized as bloated, and invest more money into salaries they argued would stem the district's teacher turnover rate, which was 14 percent last year.

In the end, Cordova committed to even larger cuts than she originally proposed. She also agreed to eliminate bonuses for herself and other top administrators. In addition to higher teacher salaries, money from the central office cuts will go toward higher pay for hourly workers, such as teacher aides, bus drivers, and food service workers. The district is also setting aside money for recommendations from a task force on special education.

This is not the first time in recent years that the district's central office has experienced cuts. Reductions happened last year, as well, in part to pay for teacher raises negotiated as part of the master teacher contract, which was separate from the recent negotiations. In 2016, the district cut 157 central office positions because of state budget pressures.

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

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