It’s been a year-and-change since the voters of Southwest Denver elected me as their representative on the Denver Board of Education, and I am still as humbled and honored as I was on that Election Day. Now that we’re starting a new year and decade, I thought I would take a look back, as a way to keep myself honest, and see whether the promises I made then are still true now.
This was actually inspired by a young lady from Kennedy High School who is on the Mayor’s Youth Commission (you know who you are!). She asked my two first-term colleagues and me to respond to some of the promises we made during the Youth Commission summit from a year ago. Thank you, Ms. M, for this idea!
Promise Number 1: Safe Schools. Teen suicides are getting more and more media coverage, and bullying continues to be an issue in our schools. I started the anti-bullying initiative this year, with a particular emphasis on preventing gender-identity bullying. The work continues, and the first milestone we’ve achieved is to restart the LGBT Education Advocacy Council. The new members have recently gone on a planning retreat, and we’ve built a strong coalition between this council and the Mayor’s Gay-Lesbian task force. The plans in the future include a youth summit, and we’re even considering creating a credit-recovery lab at safe places. It’s become increasingly obvious that gay youth (or those perceived as gay) are even dropping out of school because of the treatment at school. No child should cut their education short because they don’t feel safe in school. Of course, I will keep you posted as developments happen.
Promise Number 2: Investment in our schools. One of the biggest challenges we face at DPS is making sure the money makes it to the classroom, and this is why I have fought very hard to ensure that we are using taxpayer resources wisely. Jeannie Kaplan and I have kept an eagle eye on the way the district invests its money, most specifically on the pension interest-rate swaps, and I am happy to report that the board is in the process of hiring an outside, independent financial advisor to help us keep an eye on the details of this shaky investment.
Additionally, we have pressed for more transparency around the way that innovation schools like Manual High School are funded. The Innovations Schools Act, in my opinion, is a very vague and badly written law that leaves out a lot of details. We have to ensure equity in funding the operation within a school building, and the board is working on a new policy to allow innovation schools full autonomy in the budgeting process…also requiring the district to turn over all funds. This has been an extremely sticky problem over the past year that has even caused a principal to resign. Read the current incarnation of the revised policy for innovations schools here.
The fact that only 50% of all funding dollars actually makes it to the neighborhood school is a problem that we will continue to work on.
Promise Number 3: Accountability. I would have to say that this particular issue has been the greatest motivator for me this year. The core of accountability is the truth. After all, if you don’t have all the facts on the table about what’s working and what isn’t, how on earth could you possibly make the right decision for our kids?
I have been a burr under the saddle, a nag, a pain in the rear to find out the truth about where we stand as a district. It has brought me some detractors, but it has also brought me friends…community from all over the city who look to me to ask the tough questions. A few of the issues I’ve had to deal with include:
- The alarming fact that DPS spent the taxpayer-allocated bond money to revitalize the Byers building in Central Denver…but not on Byers. Whether I agree with having DSST there or not, the fact remains that there was no community process to redirect the funds, as required by law.
- The reality that we teach literacy to English language learners in a totally counterintuitive way that bores them and garners really lackluster results.
- In 2009 we spent 47% more on independent contractors than in 2008. This means that we’re doing work that regular employees don’t have the skills to perform.
- No one at DPS really fully understands the interest-rate swaps. It was cobbled together, and now we’re between a rock and a hard place.
- DPS has a penchant for creating disruption in communities using hastily slapped-together, badly researched plans with no solid strategy for implementation or holding itself accountable for when it fails.
- The Office of School Reform and Innovation uses a boilerplate to evaluate charter school proposals that often result in the same recommendation, but taxpaying patriots have to pay upwards of $1.5 million a year for this privilege. Plus, the board regularly ignores the advice of the District School Improvement Accountability Committee, a statutorily-mandated group of wicked-smart community members that report to the board and have seen it all.
My goal is to wade through the esoteric muck that is school policy so that Denver taxpayers can see what’s actually going on…and then take matters into their own hands.
Promise Number 4: Technology for Schools. Ok, I’ve been a little slow on the job here, but I voted yes on a federal matching grant program that would give us the technology to evaluate whether the work we’re doing in middle schools for English language learners, differently-abled and struggling readers is working. Here’s the Powerpoint presentation, and here’s the proposal to the board. This is a great opportunity for the foundations to step up and help us out by matching the federal grant.
I also worked on getting a solar collector for the roof of Abraham Lincoln High School using bond funds to pay for the work, all part of a sustainability program the district is working on. This project was suggested and worked on by the Green Club at Abraham Lincoln High School, shepherded by club sponsors Crystal Cochran and Jackie McBroom. I’m proud to quote Jim Faes, DPS’ Director of Sustainability, who says, “The solar installer and developer are both Denver-based firms. The jobs we helped create through this project as well as ongoing business support are going to Colorado companies and workers.”
I like locally-sourced jobs.
So…how am I doing? I’m not a resolutions sort of gal, but I do resolve to continue being the most accessible of all the Denver school board members, as well as the only one that holds public town hall meetings in the district. I also resolve to keep asking the hard questions that you sent me to ask and also work toward clearing the underbrush that keeps our students and teachers from doing the great job we all know they can do. Thank you for all your support throughout the last year!