what's next?

With all ballots finally counted, the outcome is clear: A return to differences of opinion on the Denver school board

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Students load the bus outside Greenlee Elementary School in Denver, August 22, 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

When new members are sworn in later this month, the Denver school board will gain something it hasn’t had, to any significant degree, in two years: dissenting voices.

Two candidates who disagree with some of Denver Public Schools’ more controversial improvement strategies won seats Tuesday, according to final unofficial returns posted Thursday night, in a hard-fought election that featured more negativity than usual. Two candidates who agree with the district’s direction also won seats, meaning the seven-member board will retain its majority in favor of policies such as universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg sounded a positive note about the results, emphasizing the winning candidates’ similarities instead of their differences.

“A natural and healthy part of elections is for folks to have a real vigorous competition of ideas,” he said. “An equally important, if not more important, part is that after the elections, folks come together, continue to debate and discuss very vigorously and recognize there’s lots in common.”

He added that “so much of what (the district is) doing — around early literacy, teacher leadership and social justice — I think you’ll see a very high degree of support for.”

School board president Anne Rowe said she believes the prevailing candidates “care deeply about our kids and want to work hard to continue to push this district forward.”

“I see us continuing forward on the path we are on,” she said. “And when you talk about the values and what we all care about, I think folks would be in agreement on those things.”

The four candidates who won Tuesday’s election include one incumbent, Barbara O’Brien, and three newcomers: Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián and Carrie A. Olson. While the three hold differing policy opinions, they have one thing in common: They’ve all been at the front of a classroom. Bacon and Cobián are former teachers, while Olson is a current teacher.

Olson and Bacon were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has pushed back against a district policy to close low-performing schools and called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Cobián was not endorsed by the union. She and O’Brien were backed by groups that support the district’s strategy, which includes cultivating a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools and more autonomous schools — and encouraging families to choose between them.

Tuesday’s election was a reversal of fortunes for the union, whose political influence had eroded over the years. In 2009, the board was split between a vocal three-member minority backed by the union and a four-member majority who supported the district’s direction. By 2013, the union had lost two seats, resulting in a board split 6-to-1. And in 2015, no union-backed candidates won. For the past two years, the board has frequently voted 7-0 in support of DPS proposals.

Union president Henry Roman said that in this year’s election, “Denver voters affirmed their commitment to public education and their support for our students.”

Backers of the district’s strategies faced a challenging electoral environment: Donald Trump’s election, and his elevation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, enlivened progressive activists and voters — a bloc that includes members and supporters of labor unions.

Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, said the major takeaway is not that union-backed candidates won two seats on a seven-member board, but that the pro-reform members hung onto their majority.

“The opponents of that agenda needed to win all-out here,” Baxter said. That they didn’t, he said, means the debates may be more heated but the outcomes will be the same.

Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform group that endorsed O’Brien and Cobián, said the organization is pleased overall with the election results and doesn’t expect “a significant shift in where the district is headed.” An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Stand spent money to elect pro-reform candidates.

On the other side, Scott Gilpin, a parent active in a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools that opposes the district’s portfolio strategy, said the election didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Just one of the candidates the group endorsed, Olson, prevailed.

An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Our Denver, Our Schools spent money, too, to elect its candidates, though its war chest was nowhere near the size of those of pro-reform groups, a factor Gilpin said “makes a huge difference.”

“We were hoping to win four seats; we won one seat,” he said. “I don’t consider that a victory.”

Olson, who has been a DPS teacher for 33 years and currently works at West Leadership Academy, faces a significant hurdle to joining the board. A district policy adopted in 1987 prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving because it would present a conflict of interest.

Olson said that “the first thing I’d like to do is speak with my six new colleagues about revisiting this 30-year-old policy and seeing if we can revise that, because I think the people have spoken very clearly that they want educators on the school board.”

The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 27, and the board has two meetings scheduled before then. But board president Rowe said Wednesday the board is not scheduled to discuss the policy at those meetings.

“There is a precedent that employees of the district do not serve on a board of education,” Rowe said. “There are really sound reasons why that makes sense.”

The election attracted a degree of national attention given that Denver is known nationally for its reform strategies. Even though the board majority held, the outcome should be a lesson to supporters of school choice and charter schools that teachers unions and other opponents can effectively mobilize in a low-turnout election, said consultant and author David Osborne, who wrote admiringly of DPS’s strategies in a new book about reforming education systems.

“It just underlines what I think we all know, which is you have to keep your eye on the political ball and you have to win the political battle over and over and over,” said Osborne, director of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.

Echoing others, Osborne said he thinks the Trump presidency may make it more difficult for pro-reform candidates to prevail. “It may turn many Democrats away from charter schools because Trump supports them,” he said. “I do worry about that and it could be happening.”

Observers said it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of efforts to tie local pro-reform candidates to Trump and DeVos, who is unpopular in Denver. Union-backed political committees sent mailers depicting Cobián and incumbent Rachele Espiritu as Trump allies, a claim they vehemently rejected. Cobián won her race to represent southwest Denver, while Espiritu, an appointee running for re-election in northeast Denver, lost hers.

In the three-person race to represent the city at-large, the campaign of candidate Robert Speth sent a mailer comparing incumbent Barbara O’Brien to DeVos.

O’Brien benefited from having more than one opposition candidate challenging her: She won 40.5 percent of the vote, while Speth garnered about 35 percent and former teacher Julie Bañuelos won 23 percent. Bañuelos earned a significant share of the vote considering she ran a shoestrings campaign with no support from outside groups, including those funded by teachers unions.

The only race that didn’t feature such a mailer — or much drama at all — was the contest between Olson and incumbent Mike Johnson to represent central-east Denver. That race was the closest in early returns, but Olson’s lead kept growing as more ballots were counted and she ended up defeating Johnson 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Johnson-Olson race also attracted the least amount of money from independent political committees attempting to sway voters, according to campaign finance reports that tracked spending through Election Day, and less attention from organizations that marshal volunteers to knock on doors.

Students for Education Reform Action Network, which deploys high school and college students to canvass, sat out that race entirely. Though Johnson supports reform, the organization did not endorse any candidate in central-east Denver, a wealthier and less diverse part of the city. A spokeswoman explained it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

The Denver and statewide teachers unions weren’t very active in the race, either. Though the union endorsed Olson, it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on helping elect two other candidates: Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who lost to Cobián in southwest Denver, and Bacon, who defeated Espiritu and another challenger, Tay Anderson, in northeast Denver.

The region represented by the northeast Denver seat is large and includes neighborhoods with a wide range of income levels and racial diversity, including historically African-American neighborhoods and new developments that have attracted a lot of white families.

A map produced by the Denver Elections Division before the final unofficial results were posted showed Bacon won precincts in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Montbello, where she lives, and in closer-in northeast neighborhoods including Northeast Park Hill. Espiritu won in precincts in the Stapleton neighborhood, where she lives.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

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