Opinion

After a Bruising Election, 4 Ways the ‘Flipped’ Denver School Board Can Put Student Success Before Adult Ego

By Vernon Jones Jr. | November 11, 2019

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Denver, Colorado

It has been a tense election cycle throughout the Denver metro area, no races more intense than those for the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. Two district seats and one at-large seat were up for grabs. The cycle brought out your usual Denver education advocates, along the usual false fault lines in Denver education: traditional vs. charter, SFER vs. DCTA, Stand for Children, Flip the Board, union vs. district; sadly, neighbor vs. neighbor. Plenty of adults squabbling; little done for students, who continue to suffer the violence of educational mediocrity.

One adult dropped more than $300,000 of his own funds to compete for one of the seats. Yes, you read that correctly. Independent Expenditure Committees dropped about that much, leaving behind a familiar stench that has sadly become the norm with fact-stretching, name-erasing, outright racist and inflammatory mailers. The stench spilled over into neighboring Aurora’s race as well. This was the nastiest I have seen the races for volunteer seats get. Over $1.3 million raised in the Denver school board race at the last reporting period. How many school psychologists could that support?

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This cycle was something. But what does it mean? Now that all of the votes have been counted and the composition of the board will be “flipped,” what is next? Does such a “flip” ensure that Denver will become a district where the violence of educational mediocrity ends? It remains to be seen, but I challenge the new board with this:

● The new board must push innovation. No matter how it is spun, good or bad, none of our existing results are worth slowing down or operating as if we have achieved the desired outcomes. Black children are still being failed across the district in every school model in its portfolio. Innovation needs to be infused in the district, through wise governance, so that doors of collaboration can be opened to address the holistic needs of children and communities. “We’ve never done it that way before” is a good thing when what you have been doing is not working for all children. This is not a time to slow down or to pretend as if we don’t need to move dramatically forward differently. Children’s lives hang in the balance.

● The new board must prioritize children. Lost in the shuffle of the education politics of the past 25 years in Denver have been children. We’ve heard the adult gripes, pontifications and political rhetoric. We have seen the negotiation sessions and the strikes. Yet, with all of the adult drama, the results for children remain dismal. Proficiency levels, while better, still are not proof that the district wants to serve all children well. Graduation rates, while better, still leave a great number of children in the pit of college remediation because we are not preparing them to succeed. This conversation should have stopped being about adults long ago. The question that must be answered with every new policy that drives practices and positions, people and provisions, is: How will this benefit all children?

● The new board must partner with Superintendent Susana Cordova: The worst thing that can happen for children is for this to become a battle of adult egos. The board has every right, and the elected responsibility, to set the vision, goals and policy boundaries for the district. It needs to do that well, and then it needs to fully trust and support the superintendent, who is hired to execute with her team on a daily basis to achieve goals and to realize that vision. This cannot become a tug-of-war where board members blur the lines of responsibility and fight the superintendent over day-to-day operations. If the superintendent is failing to lead the district toward goal achievement, and therefore vision, the board simply needs to exercise governance, review goals, reset expectations and — if that doesn’t work — replace. We do not need our communities further disenfranchised by individuals seeking to use our boardroom as a platform to push their agenda.

● The new board must practice GREAT governance. Advocacy and governance are two very different things. Both necessary, but different. We need board members who understand that and practice great governance for the good of our children. Good governance is being present, paying attention to the details, asking critical questions, not settling for weak answers, having open debates, being informed when you vote and much more. I get that it is a volunteer position, but great governance can’t be accomplished by lazy people. This is one of the most — if not the most — important volunteer posts in our city. Nearly 93,000 students, their families, employees of Denver Public Schools, taxpayers, partners and supporters are counting on these elected volunteers to provide great governance to aid the district in achieving great results for all children.

Now what, Denver? We wake up tomorrow and do better for our children, together!

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Pastor Vernon Jones Jr. is a former school leader in Denver Public Schools. He serves as the director of operations and strategy for FaithBridge, a nonprofit working to mobilize the faith community to ensure high-quality schools for all children in every community. He and his wife have five children, two in college and three currently in Denver Public Schools.

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