Members of Denver’s new union-backed school board majority say they want to give Superintendent Susana Cordova time to show she can improve equity and outcomes for students — and Cordova says that she is ready to work with them.
One of the chief jobs of a school board is to hire and fire the superintendent, and Cordova was chosen by the previous board in which a five-member majority was supported by organizations that favored the district’s education reform policies.
Now five members will have the backing of the teachers union, which has opposed many of those policies and faced off against Cordova in February’s teachers strike, which helped set the stage for the election results.
With this political shift, one of the open questions is whether Cordova will remain in her position. The near-term answer appears to be yes, although board members also say they’ll be watching closely to see if Cordova’s work aligns with their vision.
“I’m going to give Susana the ability to lead and show us that she is different than her predecessor,” said Tay Anderson, the winner in the at-large race. “I will be very closely evaluating her work around the lens of equity, making sure our schools are thriving, to make sure we’re not having the same tactics as Tom Boasberg playing into her leadership.”
Boasberg led Denver Public Schools during the decade in which the district became a national example of a certain brand of school reform that included close cooperation with charter schools and closing low-performing schools if they did not improve after being offered additional help.
Cordova served for many years under Boasberg, which led some critics in the community to oppose her selection as a continuation of his tenure. At the same time, some of the most ardent advocates of education reform feared she would not be firmly enough in their camp. She has spent most of her career in Denver Public Schools working in traditional district-run schools.
Cordova on Wednesday said she is not concerned about her job and that she shares many of the priorities the candidates expressed on the campaign trail.
“I have not heard anything from board members that leads me to believe we couldn’t create a collaborative working agenda,” she said.
Cordova is the first Latina to lead Denver Public Schools, a district whose student body is more than half Latino, and she is a product of those schools in every way. She was a student, then a teacher, then a principal, then an administrator in the district.
She was the sole finalist for the job in a contentious public process, but she ultimately was appointed nearly a year ago with the unanimous support of the previous board. Since then, she has promised to work to improve equity in the district and has won over some critics by, for example, lending district support to a community group that wants to develop a high school in the style of a historically black college to better serve students in far northeast Denver.
Notably, none of the school board candidates ran on replacing Cordova in the top job. When Denver teachers union President Tiffany Choi was asked Tuesday about what she expects to change under the new board, she talked about how the district approaches schools with persistently low test scores but not about seeking a new superintendent.
Barbara O’Brien, the current vice president of the board and a member of the previous majority, said Cordova needs more time on the job to show what she can do, and the district needs continuity of leadership. She said she believes all four continuing board members, who represent a diversity of perspectives, share this view.
“She hasn’t even had a chance to put her mark on the district with her style and her focus on teaching and learning,” O’Brien said.
But Jennifer Bacon, who was elected with union support in 2017, said there is the potential for a conversation about Cordova’s future.
“We’re all going to have to examine the culture of the district and learn how to shift it,” Bacon said, adding that Cordova “has the potential to get it right.”
Van Schoales of the education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado said he would be surprised if board members tried to remove Cordova, but Cordova will need to feel like she has their support to do the work she thinks is necessary to improve Denver schools.
“I think the question is whether given the new board’s direction, whatever that may be, whether she’ll stay,” he said. “If, for instance, there isn’t serious attention paid toward improving achievement and sort of some detailed plans around that, I don’t know if she’ll stay even though she’s a Denverite through and through.”
Schoales expressed a fear shared by many who have been supporters of the district’s reforms: that the new board won’t set rigorous goals and strategies to meet them.
But Cordova said she sees teachers and the union as partners in improving schools.
“I believe deeply that it’s important our district does more and faster for the kids that are furthest behind,” she said. “I hear those same messages coming from the union and frankly from all the candidates running for school board. I’m ready to go.”