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Just wanted to offer some quick highlights, at least from my perspective, of our Board work session last night.

Principals’ Evaluation: The district decided to ask teachers what they thought about the effectiveness of their principals via an online, anonymous survey.  The survey results are here, and the presentation to the Board is here.  The initial results seem to indicate that teachers overall are very satisfied with the leadership skills of their principals.

This is very encouraging, and my logical question was to ask if there was any correlation between principals that are rated high via this survey and the “performance” of their schools.  At first I was told that we hadn’t broken down the data to that degree, but that we could get it on the quadrant level.  I pushed a bit more, and then the next response was that drilling it down to the school level makes personnel confidentiality difficult.  I responded that the Board members are all adults, that we all know how to keep confidentiality, and that this is an important tool for us to help understand whether there are all hands on deck working in concert for kids.  The Board President, Dr. Nate Easley, and southeast Denver’s rep, Bruce Hoyt, countered that they thought this would be “micromanaging” and that the Superintendent’s contract specifically states that he’s in charge of personnel decisions.

I say that this isn’t about micromanaging.  It’s about monitoring the progress of schools in our district.  If it’s an issue of confidentiality, then we can use the executive session to review the records in private, just as the state statute allows us to.  This isn’t rocket science, and I believe that my constituents expect me to be on top of what’s going on in the schools.  This kind of information will help me do that, and I have confidence in my colleagues’ ability to keep confidentiality.

Innovation School Approvals:  We have a new application for innovation status from Valdez, the erstwhile dual-language K-8 school in Northwest Denver (trivia: Valdez was erected after Ashland was demolished in the 1970s.  I went to Ashland for a year when my family first moved to Denver).

My colleague, Jeanne Kaplan, has been saying over and over that we should have some sort of loose criteria, some rules of thumb, that guide the Board in making decisions about which school communities are ready for increased autonomy.  The Innovation Schools Act (full statute here, fact sheet here) gives school districts some authority in releasing schools from certain district policies, like curriculum, calendar, budget and staffing.

There are some school communities that are ready for this sort of autonomy.  In my opinion, they need to show that staff is pulling together and has a good relationship with the principal, parents and community need to be engaged, there is a cadre of finance and marketing professionals at the ready to assist with budgeting and promotion of the program, etc.  So it makes sense for the Board to have a punch list to refer to.  Maybe this means that the innovation application is changed so that these issues are highlighted.  Maybe it means that we ask for certain supporters to present to us.  Whatever it is, we should be performing due diligence in ensuring that a school that wants to divert from the beaten path can really do so in a way that’s sustainable.  The idea should be that the district shouldn’t have to come back and rescue the school because we made a bad decision.

Well, the reading we got from the district’s legal counsel was that to have a loose rule of thumb like this would be to interfere with the Innovation Schools Act.  I don’t agree.  The Act gives the Board full authority to approve or deny applications, so that means that there is a measure of evaluation of viability that has to happen there.  The Board has to make this evaluation, and I think it’s reckless to not allow the Board to do so.  My Board minority colleagues and I are going to seek outside legal opinion on this.

Pensions and Interest-Rate Swaps:  This was a big one.  My Board minority colleagues and I brought in John MacPherson, who was the interim president of the DPS Retirement System, which oversaw the pensions for employees of DPS.  The DPSRS was recently dissolved because legislation was finally passed to allow DPSRS to merge with PERA, the Colorado State employee pension pool.  This is a very good thing, mostly because of the portability of the pension.  Remember that DPS employees would lose their pension if they decided to work at another district, for example.  Now, with PERA, they can shift around as they please.  Remember also that public employees do not receive social security benefits for the time they are employed by the State or other entities.

When the state legislature allowed DPSRS to merge with PERA, they took into account the amount of money we’re spending to service the interest-rate swaps.  They knew that this deal was going to cause a severe blow to our cash flow, and consequently, our ability to meet our employer contribution obligation, so they allowed DPS to back out from the full amount due for now to help ease the transition.  Further, there will be a “true up” in 2015, when we’ll have to catch up for all the backing out we’ve been given now.  So, obviously, it would make sense to hear from John, who was privy to the discussion, and who really is the voice crying in the wilderness about this “true up.”  The Board needs to have a plan in place, has to be “socking” away money in preparation for this…so why not hear information that can help us make a good decision?  Logical, right?

Well, apparently not.  Nate Easley did not want to allow Mr. MacPherson to present, simply because it “broke protocol.”  There is apparently some nebulous rule, not written down anywhere, that says that a Board work session is not the time to take in information.  My Board minority colleagues and I managed to wrangle a separate meeting to hear this information, however, and I will ensure that the public is invited.  The only person who declined to be available for this meeting was Theresa Pena.

The good news is that the meeting is being scheduled right now.  I’ll keep you posted.

Can we please stop being so transparency-averse now?