war of words

Denver Democratic Party chairman claims election mailer implies party endorsement in school board race

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a recent press conference at Holm Elementary.

The chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver on Tuesday called out as false a political mailer he said implied the party had endorsed a candidate in the Denver school board election.

The registered agent for the group that produced the piece, however, responded that was not the intent of a mailer that highlighted prominent Denver Democrats’ endorsements of board vice president Barbara O’Brien, a former Democratic lieutenant governor.

The disagreement is the latest escalation in what has become a tension-filled final stretch in the school board race, which features contests for four of the board’s seven seats. Ballots were mailed to voters more than two weeks ago, and voting ends Tuesday on Election Day.

At issue is a mailer produced by Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee that has spent more than $345,000 to try to preserve the 7-0 majority that backs the current direction of Denver Public Schools. The committee is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that in Colorado has advocated for increased funding for charter schools and for a DPS policy to close persistently low-performing schools of all types.

O’Brien sits on the national advisory board of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER.

Here is the front and back of the mailer:


Mike Cerbo, chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver, sent out a news release Tuesday with the following statement:

Dear Denver Democrats,
It has come to my attention that a mail piece is being circulated claiming that a candidate for the Denver School Board, Barbara O’Brien, is the choice of Denver Democrats. The implication that the Democratic Party has endorsed in this race is untrue. The Democratic Party of Denver does not endorse in local school board races and has made no endorsement in this one.

Cerbo also sent an email, obtained by Chalkbeat, to party members saying the party was calling on Raising Colorado “to retract any reference or implication that the Denver Democrats have made a choice in the Denver School Board race.” He provided the phone number and email of Jen Walmer, Raising Colorado’s registered agent and the Colorado state director of DFER.

In an interview Wednesday, Cerbo said his statement came in response to calls from party members about the mailer’s message.

“The implication was the Denver Democratic Party made a choice,” said Cerbo, a former state lawmaker and past president of the state’s AFL-CIO labor union. “There were a few different ways to phrase it if they were talking about a specific group of Denver Democrats.”

Walmer told Chalkbeat she responded to the concerns immediately when they were first aired on Facebook, explaining that as former Arapahoe County Democratic Party chair she understands party rules and bylaws about endorsements and never intended to imply one. She also apologized to Cerbo “for any problems this has caused for you in your role.”

After Cerbo shared her contact information with party members, Walmer said she received 45 phone calls and 16 or 17 emails, and also was the target of attacks via comments on Facebook.

“As a former county chair, I know the rules of parties,” said Walmer, who is also a former DPS chief of staff. “I never insinuated that they endorsed. I know they cannot. I am surprised I got such hateful and threatening comments based on a piece that is merely highlighting that six incredible Democratic leaders have endorsed Barbara O’Brien, but the party has been absolutely silent on attacks likening (candidates running for Denver school board) to Donald Trump.”

Asked about those attempts to tie board candidates to Trump and the party’s stance on them, Cerbo said he has not looked closely into it.

“Just to be clear,” he added, “I am not condoning mailers with inaccurate information if that’s the case. I wish we could have thoughtful debate on every issue of the campaign.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.