Denver schools superintendent: DPS board distracted, unprepared to judge closures

For more than a year, Denver Public Schools faced a difficult reality: The district may need to close schools to combat declining enrollment and a looming $23.5 million budget deficit.

But when the time to vote finally arrived Thursday night, the Board of Education rejected the district’s narrowed proposal to close two schools and revoked a 2021 resolution directing the superintendent to develop a consolidation plan — even as one director called closures “inevitable.”

Superintendent Alex Marrero, in an interview Friday, said the school board was distracted and unprepared to make the hard decision to close schools. He said the board members should have brought up their concerns — and suggestions — about potential closures earlier in the year after the district presented the criteria that a committee of parents, educators and others recommended using in deciding which schools to consolidate.

“When we introduced this last spring, early summer, that was go-time,” Marrero told The Denver Post. “That was a time in which we say this is going to get real. Are we going to have to vote on schools? Yes.”

His comments echoed those from several education groups, which said last week that the school board should have stepped in sooner to address concerns with the closure plan. The groups have criticized the rollout of the proposal and said it seemed as though district staff and the board weren’t communicating with each other.

Infighting has consumed the seven-member school board for most of the year, some of which has spilled into public view, including at meetings held this week to discuss the school closure plan.

“There was a tremendous amount of distraction on the board and they have to acknowledge that,” Marrero said.

Members of Denver’s school board have disagreed on how to operate under a new governance model, in which the board sets policies that act more as goals they want the district to achieve. This gives Marrero flexibility on how to achieve a policy without the board passing resolutions specifically directing him to do something.

“This all stems from our board policies not being completed,” said director Scott Baldermann. “Our policies still do not reflect the values of the board and we’re going to continue to have situations like this where there’s miscommunication.”

Baldermann, the only director to vote in favor of the school closures, said they were “inevitable” despite the board’s decision on Thursday.

During the meeting, board president Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán apologized to both the public and Marrero for directors not providing insight sooner on what they want to see from a school-closure plan.

“When board conflict occurs it doesn’t allow directors to focus on the work and fiduciary duties we must uphold, and sometimes the internal conflict can cause a distraction from the policy work that needs to happen for the superintendent to get his work done,” Gaytán said in an interview.

But board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson pushed back on that assertion, saying that he only learned the specifics of the district’s school closure plan hours before the public. The advisory committee gave its recommendation on criteria, but “what I did not know is how we would be moving forward,” he said.

“I don’t believe that conflict distracted us,” Anderson said of the board.

“It’s not easy to say yes”

As soon as the district revealed in late October which schools it was recommending to close, the plan drew pushback from parents, students, educators and others in the community. They have criticized everything from how the district rolled out the plan to which schools were named to the lack of community engagement.

Marrero knew the plan would make people unhappy and said he even expected it to receive more criticism than it did.

“Nothing that happened caught us by surprised — me and the district,” he said. “I believe the Board of Education, with all respect to them, underestimated what was going to happen.”

The board ultimately voted against closing schools, with some of the directors being among the biggest critics of the plan. Several board members appeared caught off-guard when Marrero announced before Thursday’s vote that he was cutting his recommendation to close five schools to two.

The district had revised its proposal only a week earlier, cutting the initial list of 10 schools recommended for closure to five. That change was made because the district could recoup most of the money it is using to subsidize small schools by just closing the five that receive the most assistance, Marrero said.

When he slashed the list again, it was done because he knew the two remaining schools — Denver Discovery School and Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy — would likely be easier for directors to decide on because they are in some of the worst straits, so much so there’s a real possibility they could close next year because they won’t have enough students or employees to run the schools, Marrero said.

“It was also my attempt to say, these (two schools) are as clear as we can be — just so we can engage in the momentum of ultimately what the board is going to have to do,” he said.

“It was a little bit of a test; an appetizer to the main course. It’s not easy to say yes,” Marrero added. “The easiest thing to do is to vote no. The hard part, the courageous leadership, comes in when you make a decision that is so unpopular.”

But, he said, he never removed the other eight schools from the district’s list of schools recommended for closure. All that changed was when the board would vote on certain schools, meaning the others still could have been voted on at a later meeting, Marrero said.

“I just don’t feel like folks were prepared to make this decision,” he said.

Anderson said he felt blindsided by Marrero’s alteration of his closure recommendation for a second time, saying that he felt the superintendent was trying to win votes. (An accusation Marrero denied by saying, “Look at the outcome.”)

“As the vice president of the board, at the very least, I should have been read into this,” Anderson said, adding, “That was very frustrating and I hope the superintendent will understand this is not the appropriate way. I will be taking steps to investigate further if there was prior knowledge of this revised recommendation to any board member.”

Anderson said he has filed a request under the Colorado Open Records Act for copies of any emails and text messages his colleagues on the school board might have exchanged with Marrero related to the vote.

“I want to make sure we are operating with transparency and to the highest ethical standard,” he said. “I don’t believe my colleagues did anything malicious.”

“What’s the plan?”

DPS is considering school closures because the district is facing declining enrollment, which staff has attributed to falling birth rates and rising housing costs. Schools receive less funding when they have fewer children and the district has said small schools have larger class sizes and fewer electives, such as art.

DPS will have about a $23.5 million budget deficit next year and Marrero said there’s a “strong likelihood” he will have to ask the board to dip into the district’s reserves.

“People are about the feel the implications of this decision come this spring,” Baldermann said, adding that the district, and its schools, will soon be reviewing their budgets and will have to make decisions about staffing.

It’s very likely one or more schools will close next year because they simply don’t have enough students or employees to keep their buildings open,  Marrero said.

“The wondering I have is: What’s the plan?” he said. “We will be here again.”

Anderson, though, said he believes the board should only close a school if the proposal has the support of 60% to 70% of that school’s employees and parents.

Directors said they want to develop a new policy around closures, one that features more input from the community.

“I am unhappy with the way this plan was rolled out and I want to be able to ensure in the future if this happens again it is codified in the documents of the district so the superintendent can be held accountable,” he said.

Anderson said he was unsure whether the Board of Education will vote on another school closure recommendation before his term on the board ends in a year.

The situation is urgent, “but not the dire situation it was painted to be,” he said.

“(Marrero) needs to engage with the community before he brings me another plan,” Anderson said. “The Board of Education needs to create another plan and policy. As long as the superintendent continues to bring me plans that aren’t community-led, I will continue to vote them down.”

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