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It’s been much quieter in Denver Public Schools’ board room since the induction of a new board last November — and that might be thanks to the previous board’s high profile spats.
Every issue to come before Denver’s school board has passed in the ten months since a new slate of members was voted in, an examination of the board’s voting records reveal. What’s more, most of those votes have been unanimous.
That’s a distinct change from the workings of the district’s previous board, whose meetings were often marked by contentious debates and split votes. Last fall, Denver voters elected a slate of candidates largely supportive of the district’s agenda for transforming schools.
That came on the heels of several years of high-profile and heated debates between board members that culminated in a divisive process to replace a former board member, Nate Easley, who resigned. In previous years, the board split 4-3 on many issues with the minority votes — former board members Andrea Mérida and Jeannie Kaplan, current board member Arturo Jimenez — frequently opposing the district agenda backed by the majority.
These days, board meetings are far less likely to resemble the climax of a tense political drama. Instead of public spats, board members said they work to resolve disagreements before they ever reach the board table. But experts say that the quieting of those noisy disputes can come at a cost to public dialogue and may be a direct result of the previous years of tension.
“Parents hate it when school boards argue,” said Kris Amundsen, the executive director the National Association of State Boards of Education and a former member of a divided board. “When a number of us moved on, they elected a school board that was committed, most of all, to reaching harmony.”
Barbara O’Brien, one of the district’s at-large members elected last fall, said that’s the feedback she has gotten from constituents.
“What I’ve heard is we’re so glad there’s a board that’s doing its job,” said O’Brien.
Still, discontent over the board’s unified front has cropped up. During campaign season, O’Brien and other candidates were met with suspicion that they would simply rubber-stamp what the district brought before them.
Those criticisms still linger among opponents of the district’s approach to overhauling schools. At a recent community gathering in far northeast Denver, community members criticized the board for failing to listen to their concerns and for adopting a corporate-style reform agenda.
“Except Arturo [Jimenez], they do exactly what [Denver superintendentTom Boasberg] and his staff of mostly non-educators tell them to,” said Mary Sam, a former DPS teacher and community activist, afterwards.
But O’Brien says that she and other board members have been highly critical of the district, behind closed doors.
“Tom [Boasberg] has pushed back on me and I’ve pushed back on him,” she said. “All that’s very healthy when we’re sitting around a table.”
Doing it in public would mean that less gets done, says board member Landri Taylor.
“When I came on in 2013, we spent a lot of time on things that did not make a difference,” said Taylor. “We were stuck in the conversation of disagreement. We have to move forward.”
Board members said most conversation is conducted in one-on-one or two-on-one meetings, or by email, with district staff or between board members. That practice, while within the bounds of the law, may approach actions that have created trouble for other public boards.
The Denver school board, like other public boards, is subject to open meeting laws, which mandate that if a quorum of board members is present, the meeting must be made public. Denver board members said their conversations did not reach that threshold nor did they “daisychain” or meet successively until all had spoken.
The board’s actions are part of a larger nationwide trend towards school boards maintaining public unity, in spite of personal disagreements. Districts elsewhere have adopted policies that prevent individual board members from speaking to the press or to designate a spokesperson. That’s not the case in Denver and isn’t on the table but board members said that they preferred to maintain the collegial spirit.
But Amundsen says that impulse, while a good one, can lead to a loss of transparency and obscure public input.
“If you believe part of the role of the school board is to discuss the issue, not just decide the issue, especially if they’re going to lose the vote, [board members] need to have their say,” she said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean shouting matches in board meeting.
“It doesn’t have to be mean and contentious,” said Amundsen. “It does have to be visible.”
She suggests mentioning in public meetings disagreements that occur behind closed doors.
“It can be, “I want to thank the superintendent because he had originally proposed we make the start time at X time,” Amundsen said. “Thanks to our collaboration, it’s now at Y time.”
Jimenez, the only board member to have submitted a no vote since last fall, agreed with Amundsen’s counsel.
“I know they’re critical and I know they’re thoughtful but they’re unwilling to bring it out in public,” he said.
Jimenez attributes what he calls the “passivity” of the board to the business-style education reform he says pervades the district.
“We’re not the board of a private corporation that acts in unison in public and resolves our conflict in private so we protect our share of stock,” he said. “The board should be a check on the district and we should ensure that there is accountability. I don’t think we’re doing it.”
Part of that, he says, is simply speaking up.
“There is this unspoken line where we aren’t supposed to criticize the superintendent and the district,” said Jimenez. “I hope that changes.”