Booth vs. Board of Education

By David Hill — October 01, 1995 25 min read

Cordia Booth looked nervous. It was a cool August evening in the Mile High City, and once again Booth--an 8th grade science teacher at Hill Middle School--found herself in the first-floor boardroom of the Denver Public Schools administration building, waiting to make her pitch. This time, she had company: about 45 supporters of her proposed charter school. The board had turned down the charter school several times before, and each time the Colorado State Board of Education had ordered the district to reverse its decision. Booth had even filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming that it was breaking the law by ignoring the state’s ruling. But the district had argued that the state charter school law itself was unconstitutional, in that it gave a state body control over a local school board. And there the matter stood, tied up in the courts, with no resolution in sight. Booth’s hopes of opening her school in the fall were fading fast.

Would the school board change its mind tonight? Probably not. At a meeting in April, board member Lynn Coleman had made her position on the matter clear, telling Booth, “I have a problem with you taking public dollars to experiment.’' None of the other board members had publicly supported the proposed charter institution, which Booth has already named Thurgood Marshall Middle School, so it seemed unlikely that they would do so tonight. Still, Booth was optimistic. About 20 advocates for the school had signed up to speak; perhaps their words would make a difference.

At 7:20 p.m., the board members--four women and three men, including superintendent Irv Moskowitz--took their seats at the front of the room, and the meeting came to order. Following some routine business matters, Booth was informed that she and her supporters--parents, teachers, students, and community members--would have 15 minutes to make their statements. Booth, a handsome woman with a deep, resonant voice, had planned to speak for about three minutes, but now she elected to forfeit her own remarks so that more voices could be heard. At the appointed time, five students--all girls--lined up next to the podium. One by one, they pleaded with the board members to change their minds and approve the charter school. Eleven-year-old Beatrice Talavera could barely reach the microphone, but she spoke clearly and eloquently, looking each board member squarely in the eyes as she read her statement.

“I’m here,’' she said, “to help Thurgood Marshall become a reality instead of just a dream. All my life, I have been told to follow my dreams and to never give up the faith of those dreams becoming real. Well, this is one of my greatest dreams: to go to a school where I can feel safe and not have to worry about gangs and drugs surrounding me. Instead, I can get a good education because the teachers and the parents care about teaching us the way we should be taught, and the children care about learning. Please don’t ruin my dream of getting the best education I can have. . . . Please, please, give us a chance.’'

Joe Peterson, a tall man with a huge walrus mustache, took a different tack when his turn came to speak. “Thurgood Marshall Middle School will open,’' he warned the board. “The only question is when, and under whose authority. In essence, you have to choose whether the school will open through legislation, negotiation, or legal action. I can tell you that we’re prepared on all three levels now.’'

By the time the 15 minutes was up, only nine Thurgood Marshall supporters had spoken. An angry woman stood up and asked if she could say something, but board president Aaron Gray cut her off. The designated time period was over; there would be no more comments.

Not that it would have done much good; the board had already decided the school’s fate. Before the meeting, the members had convened to write a statement about the proposed charter school. Now, Gray read it aloud: “The struggle to come to terms with the proposed Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle School has been a difficult one for us. There are many reasons why we have failed to come to an agreement. Let us try to outline a few.’'

Not surprisingly, money was at the top of Gray’s list.

“The organizers of Thurgood Marshall,’' he said, “are asking to open a school that would require more money to operate than existing Denver schools. They are asking for far more than the district can afford.’' In fact, Booth had argued that her school would cost less money to run, not more, but the district remained unconvinced.

Gray pointed out that the board had previously offered Booth a contract to open the school with 85 percent of the district’s $4,500 per-pupil operating revenue. “That’s more than the minimum required by state law,’' Gray added. Yet Booth had argued all along that charter school students shouldn’t be penalized for trying something different. She was willing to open her school with 94 percent of the per-pupil operating revenue, but that was as low as she was willing to go. Eighty-five percent was out of the question. “That’s discrimination,’' she had said.

Gray brought up another point of disagreement: the school site. Booth wanted Thurgood Marshall to be located in Ash Grove Elementary School, a vacant school owned by the district and now being used as a senior citizen recreation center. DPS officials had argued that it would cost $150,000 to upgrade the school for use by middle schoolers. “That’s a cost that the board has decided does not make sense,’' Gray said. But Booth had previously disputed the $150,000 figure. “We need to sweep up the floors perhaps,’' she had argued, “and wash the windows. We don’t need to remodel the building.’'

Gray concluded his remarks by citing the “wide array of choices’’ available to the district’s 63,000 students. Then he added: “We regret--we sincerely regret--this long struggle, but at each juncture we have tried to do what we think is best for all the students of Denver. Thank you.’'

It was clear that Gray and the other board members wanted this to be the final word on the matter. But Booth, a teacher for 22 years, had been fighting for too long to give up that easily. If she had to take her case all the way to the state supreme court, then so be it. She had a new team of lawyers working for her, pro bono, and they meant business.

“We intend to continue on,’' Booth said confidently after the meeting. A small group of the school’s supporters huddled in the hallway outside the boardroom, wondering aloud what to do next. The five students who had mustered up the nerve to speak in front of the board looked especially dejected. “Don’t give up, kids,’' someone offered. “We’ll get it!’'

Cordia Booth’s two-year battle to open Thurgood Marshall Middle School comes at a time when charter schools are sprouting all across the nation. More than 200 charters have been granted since the movement began about five years ago in Minnesota. Nineteen states now have charter school laws on the books. Last year, Time magazine dubbed charters “New Hope for Public Schools.’' Many school reformers agree, yet not one state charter school law has passed without a fight. That’s because charter schools, by their very nature, are threats to the status quo. When a group of parents or teachers organizes a charter school, they are, in effect, telling the local school district, “We can do better than you can.’' Is it any wonder that school boards react defensively?

The increasing popularity of charter schools reflects a broader national trend: dissatisfaction with the public schools. Parents--and teachers--are fed up with crowded classrooms and bloated administrative offices. They want schools that look like centers for learning, not factories. Big is bad; small is beautiful. “In schools, big doesn’t work no matter how one slices the data,’' educator Deborah Meier asserts in her recent book, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America From a Small School in Harlem. “Large schools neither nourish the spirit nor educate the mind; except for a small elite who run the place and claim (falsely) to know everyone, what big schools do is remind most of us that we don’t count for a lot.’'

Booth’s dream of starting her own school was born out of such dissatisfaction with the status quo. Sometime in the early part of 1993, teachers in the Denver Public Schools began hearing news that the district was faced with a serious budget shortfall and that something drastic had to be done. Then-superintendent Evie Dennis came up with a plan that would save the district $45-million by trimming administrative jobs, freezing teachers’ salaries, and eliminating 387 of the district’s 4,000 teaching positions. Teachers were told to expect larger classes.

To Booth and her colleague Noblet Danks, a social studies teacher at Hill Middle School, the plan was a frontal assault on their profession. At the time, Danks had 38 students in her classroom, and Booth about 40. “I couldn’t even move around the room!’' Booth recalls. Danks couldn’t fathom trying to teach more than 38 students--that was too many already. “When they began talking about ‘higher class size,’ '' she says, “that triggered a response in Cordia and me.’'

If cuts had to be made, the teachers reasoned, they should be made in the administration building, not in the classroom. They decided to take their complaints to the school board. But before they could do that, they needed to arm themselves with facts and figures, so they drove down to the central office and got their very own copy of the budget, a 700-page behemoth. Danks took it home and began poring over it line by line; she even entered the numbers into a spreadsheet program on her home computer, just to see if they added up. “I became addicted to looking at the budget,’' Danks says. “I spent hours and hours doing that. In fact, I spent my whole spring vacation studying the budget. I tabulated every single expense and figured out that 26 percent of the district’s expenditures were not connected to any school building. Over a quarter of the budget did not get to the children!’'

At the time, Booth was busy working on a Ph.D. in educational administration, so Danks took on the task of publicizing the teachers’ findings. She helped organize a meeting of 150 renegade teachers and parents who opposed the budget cutbacks, and she started showing up at the monthly school board meetings, where she pleaded her case. She figured that once she pointed out her data to the board, wiser heads would prevail, and the budget proposal would be scrapped. “I thought that would be the end of it,’' she says, laughing at her naiveté. “I thought that possibly they had not realized the extent of the situation, that if we showed it to them clearly, the problem would be corrected.’'

Not a chance. When Danks got up to speak at one school board meeting, the superintendent and several other members actually walked out of the room. “Evie Dennis was annoyed by us,’' she says. “I think it bothered her that we were teachers doing this. I think she thought we were being insubordinate.’'

Then she adds, “The board was not open to change. After a while, they got into a defensive mode, so that no matter what I would say, it was difficult to convince them.’'

When, in June 1993, the board finally got around to adopting a $308 million budget--$17 million less than the previous year’s--the 387 teaching positions were left intact, and a handful of administrative positions were eliminated. But the board dropped a 3.5 percent salary increase that had previously been pledged to the district’s teachers.

Booth and Danks felt as if their efforts to force the district to trim administrative costs had gone nowhere. “We saw that this wasn’t going to work,’' Danks says.

Meanwhile, that same month, Gov. Roy Romer, known for his reform-minded views on education, signed into law a bill that would allow up to 50 charter schools to be formed throughout Colorado. The Colorado Charter Schools Act declared that “educators and parents have a right and responsibility to participate in the education institutions which serve them.’' Lawmakers hoped the legislation would create “a legitimate avenue for parents, teachers, and community members to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, and more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.’'

Interest in the bill was high. In the week after the governor signed the law into effect, the Colorado Department of Education received more than 350 calls from persons wanting to know how to start a charter school. Applicants were told to submit their proposals to their local school boards, which would either approve or deny the charter. Under the law, however, the state board of education has the authority to overturn a local board’s decision.

Booth and Danks were thrilled when they first heard about the new law. Here was a chance for them to design their dream school, a school based on the ideas they had already been presenting to the school board. The two teachers began meeting after school, on weekends, and during vacations, piecing together a proposal.

The resulting document was an outline for a sort of no-frills middle school. It would enroll about 215 students. Class sizes would be held to 20 pupils or less. There would be no principal, no counselors, no librarian, and no security guard, assuring that as much money as possible would be spent in the classroom. All students would be taught in both English and Spanish. The curriculum would be rigorous. Discipline would be strictly enforced. Classes would be long, up to two hours. The ethnic and racial makeup of the student body would reflect that of the entire school system, which is 45 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 21 percent African-American, 4 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian. Students of all academic levels would be welcome. Booth and Danks were convinced that students at their school could outperform students at regular Denver public schools.

“What we came up with,’' Booth says, “was the typical kind of model you see in foreign missionary schools and Catholic schools. We called it the ‘limited resource model.’ ''

“There was nothing subversive about our proposal,’' Danks adds.

Booth and Danks even managed to get the local teachers’ union, which is philosophically opposed to charter schools, to endorse their school. “We think a lot of charter schools are just experiments,’' says Leonard Fox, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, “and we shouldn’t be supporting experiments at the expense of the other students. But Thurgood Marshall has the most potential of all the ones I’ve seen in Denver.’'

The teachers decided to name their charter school after the lawyer who, in 1954, argued the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case before the Supreme Court and later became the Court’s first black member. The school’s name, Booth says, “is a tribute to Marshall’s life and what he stood for.’'

As word of the proposed school began to spread, Booth and Danks began hearing from other DPS teachers who wanted to lend their support to the project. Some even signed on as “charter teachers,’' that is, teachers who promised to teach at the school if it ever got off the ground. Parents, too, were interested; some wanted to sign their children up right away, but Booth and Danks were committed to a lottery system, so they took names but made no promises. They did, however, form an advisory board made up of teachers, parents, and community members.

On Jan. 7, 1994, Booth and Danks submitted their proposal to the Denver Public Schools. It was one of 13 charter school applications presented to the district.

“I thought we had it,’' Booth says, smiling. “Oh, yeah. I thought, They’re gonna love it!’'

But they didn’t love it. On Feb. 17, the board voted to approve only two of the charter school applications, and Thurgood Marshall wasn’t among them. “The overriding factor,’' then board president Tom Mauro said at the time, “was money--and the fact that we’re faced with a $15 million budget shortfall.’' Aaron Gray put it this way: “I do have one thing to say to the legislature: Charter schools go better with funding.’' (The two charter schools that were approved, Denver Youth Academy and Clayton Charter School, both had outside sources of funding, which made them more palatable to the district. Clayton, which serves at-risk children and emphasizes parental involvement and family social services, was in fact already in operation when it received charter school status from DPS. Denver Youth Academy, on the other hand, has never gotten off the ground.)

“I didn’t know what to do next,’' Booth says. “I knew there was an appeal process, but all we wanted was to be able to teach. When you reach an obstacle, you don’t really know if it pays to go over it or whether to just say, ‘Well, we tried.’ ''

Booth and Danks decided to keep on fighting. They filed an appeal with the state board of education, and in April, they heard the good news: The board had overturned the district’s decision. Sybil Downing, then president of the state board, said, “The Thurgood Marshall School had enough substance to merit another serious look by the Denver school board.’' The vote was 5-0, with one member absent. (The state board, however, backed the Denver board’s rejection of two other charter schools.)

“I feel like David against Goliath,’' an elated Booth told reporters at the time. “I’m excited and surprised. I didn’t expect this to happen.’' Then-superintendent Evie Dennis said she was “disgusted’’ by the state board’s decision.

Booth’s jubilation was short-lived. Under the appeal process, the Denver school board had one more opportunity to either approve or deny the application, and on May 19, it chose the latter option. This time, board members lauded the school’s philosophy but called it too expensive. Booth accused the board of being “anti-charter.’' “It is very clear to charter school applicants,’' she said, “that the Denver district would just as soon not have them.’'

The battle was beginning to wear the two teachers down. They decided to hire a lawyer to help them get through one more appeal hearing before the state board. This time, the board’s decision would be final.

On July 18, 1994, it was (in Yogi Berra’s famous words) déjà vu all over again: The state board of education ordered DPS to approve Thurgood Marshall Middle School and to make sure the school was up and running by the 1995-96 school year. The matter finally seemed to be resolved--or was it? Following the state board’s decision, Evie Dennis hinted that the district was considering a legal challenge against the charter school law itself.

Meanwhile, Noblet Danks had pushed herself so hard--first with the budget battles, then with the charter school fight--that she ended up in the hospital with anemia and a malfunctioning thyroid gland. “I had really ruined myself,’' she says. “It’s possible I could have avoided some of my health problems if I had taken better care of myself.’' Nevertheless, she decided to take a leave of absence from teaching, and she reluctantly gave up her role in the fight for Thurgood Marshall. “It became Cordia’s ballgame,’' she says.

Booth and her lawyer, Peter Bornstein, began negotiating with the district over a number of issues, including where the school might be located. DPS officials suggested Ash Grove Elementary, located in a quiet residential neighborhood in southeast Denver. The school had been closed for more than a decade and was now a recreation center for senior citizens. Booth liked the site--it was in a safe part of town--but the local neighborhood association vowed to fight any attempt to establish a middle school at Ash Grove. Residents, many of whom are retired, said they didn’t want students coming from other parts of the city into their peaceful neighborhood. They pointed out that the district had other vacant or underutilized facilities; why couldn’t Thurgood Marshall be located at one of those?

Negotiations between Booth and the district continued into the fall, without success. Eventually, Booth concluded that the district had no intention of obeying the state’s order to approve the charter, so she decided to take the matter to court.

In response to Booth’s lawsuit, DPS lawyer Patrick Mooney argued that the state board had directed only that the district continue negotiating with Booth, not that it approve the charter. Further, he argued that the state charter school law was unconstitutional. But on March 27, 1995, Denver District Judge John Coughlin rejected both arguments. “Although not expressly finding that the Denver School Board staff is negotiating in bad faith,’' Coughlin wrote in his decision, “this Court does find that the staff is not acting with the expediency necessary to carry out the State Board’s order. . . .’' That order, he added, was “more than an order to negotiate,’' it was “an order to accept the Marshall Charter School.’'

“Time is running out,’' Coughlin wrote. “Arrangements for teachers, transportation, and facilities must be made for the 1995-96 academic year.’' The judge ordered the district to abide by the state board’s ruling and to work with Booth “to complete the charter application . . . by April 14, 1995, if not sooner.’'

Booth was thrilled by the decision, but she had seen her hopes dashed too many times before to think it would put an end to the matter. “The staff tactics [by DPS] are incredible,’' she told a reporter. “We’ll see if we can survive them.’'

As it turned out, Booth had every reason to be skeptical. On the afternoon of April 20, the Denver school board finally voted to approve the charter for Thurgood Marshall Middle School, but the board members made it clear that they were only doing so because they would be held in contempt of court if they didn’t. “Philosophically, I’m opposed to this,’' board member Tom Mauro said, “but I don’t see that we have any choice.’' Booth should have been delighted by the vote, but when she saw the charter that had been approved, she realized that it was the district’s version, not hers, and it called for Thurgood Marshall to be funded at 85 percent of the district’s per-pupil operating revenues, not 94 percent, as she had requested. (The law requires that charter schools receive at least 80 percent of the local district’s PPOR. “It’s a big problem,’' says Jim Griffin, who heads the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “The districts can comply with the letter of the law, but they won’t give a dime more than they have to.’')

Meanwhile, on the same day that the Denver school board approved the charter, the district’s lawyer asked the state appeals court to overturn the lower court’s decision and asked Judge Coughlin to stay his preliminary injunction pending the appeal. On May 23, Coughlin did just that, leaving the district free to revoke the charter it had approved. On June 8, the school board members voted 7-0 to kill the charter. The legal issue--whether the state board of education can force local school districts to approve charter schools--was now in the hands of the court of appeals.

The Denver Post scolded the school board for its actions. “The proposed Thurgood Marshall Middle School seems to have become a bone in the throat of the Denver School Board,’' the newspaper editorialized. “The board can neither swallow it nor spit it out.’' The paper accused the district of “administrative foot-dragging.’' “Lurking in the background is a growing suspicion that the board just doesn’t like charter schools generally. . . . The public is clamoring for some improvements in the public education system. The legislature responded to that clamor by specifically encouraging experimentations with public money in charter schools--and expects the district to cooperate to select the best ideas. Many districts have already done so. Isn’t it time Denver got with the program?’'

Board president Aaron Gray argues that the charter school law amounts to nothing more than an “unfunded mandate’’ by the state. “I think we have to raise the issue of local control,’' he says, “because the state is not willing to make up for the kind of deficits that we have.’' He points out that charter schools take students away from regular schools, yet the overhead costs for those schools don’t change. If the state can force a local district to open a charter school, he reasons, then the state should help foot the bill.

By mid-summer, Booth was weighing her options. “I was depressed and angry,’' she said one hot July afternoon, sitting in the living room of her spacious home in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. “The school board seems to be in a power play with the state, in which we’re just playing a small part. But it’s the parents and students who are getting screwed.’' She added: “The Denver Public Schools win by losing because that gives them more time. It wears you down.’'

Booth, a divorced mother of two teenage boys, had grown up in Washington, D.C., where she attended public schools. During the 1960s, she was active in both the civil rights and anti-war movements, and, like others from her generation, she took part in countless demonstrations. Fighting for what she believed came naturally.

But Booth, now 51, had spent the better part of two years fighting for her school, and she wasn’t sure if she could continue. She already owed her lawyer nearly $10,000, and she knew it would take a lot more than that before the case was resolved. “I never expected that we would get to that point,’' she said, “and it looked like there was no end in sight.’'

She decided to put in a call to Jim Griffin at the Colorado League of Charter Schools. She explained her plight to Griffin, who immediately got in touch with the Colorado Lawyers Committee, which takes on cases pro bono. The committee agreed to take over the case from Peter Bornstein. “DPS has thrown up a number of roadblocks,’' says Dan Sweetser, one of several lawyers now working on the lawsuit. “But we think Cordia has a very good case. We think the charter school act is constitutional, and we think the district should grant the charter.’' The Colorado State Board of Education agrees and has intervened in the case on behalf of Booth and Thurgood Marshall.

“This is going to take off,’' Griffin says. “It’s a new twist to the Thurgood Marshall battle. It will get the school open. It’s just a matter of when.’'

For the moment, however, Booth and her proposed charter school are out of the spotlight. On Aug. 16, the Denver school board voted 5-1 to place a proposed mill levy increase on the ballot in November. If approved by the electorate, the hike would add about $30 million in revenues to the district’s annual budget. “All of us agree our district is facing a crisis,’' Aaron Gray said before the board voted. “It is time for a change.’' Superintendent Irv Moskowitz is attempting to sell the property tax increase by promising a number of reforms, including performance pay for teachers, more gifted and talented programs, tougher enforcement of disciplinary rules, longer school hours, and more magnet programs. “Let’s redefine this school district, put a new face on this school district,’' Moskowitz told board members.

(Initially, charter schools were conspicuously missing from the package, but the most recent proposal calls for $900,000 to be set aside annually for the opening of one charter school per year, beginning with the 1996-97 school year.)

The Rocky Mountain News was quick to point out the obvious: How can a district that has been so adamantly opposed to charter schools suddenly embrace such wide-ranging school reforms? “This is a school board,’' the newspaper editorialized, “that has thrown up more obstacles to charter schools than exist in any major district.’' The newspaper went on to praise the superintendent’s plan but warned voters: “District officials will begin any campaign with the burden of proof entirely in their corner.’'

To its credit, the school board narrowly approved another charter school, P.S. 1, in June. The school, organized by Rexford Brown, a former senior fellow at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, opened in September with 60 students ages 10 to 15. Set in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in downtown Denver, the school offers a project-based curriculum that focuses on urban problems. Eventually, it will serve 400 students of all ages.

The school looks promising. But then, so does Thurgood Marshall. So why did P.S. 1 get the go-ahead when Thurgood Marshall didn’t? “It passed,’' says Gray, one of three school board members who voted against P.S. 1, “because it has some very powerful and influential people behind it. Thurgood Marshall didn’t have that advantage.’'

Booth admits that her status as a teacher has made it harder for her charter school proposal to be taken seriously, especially by what she calls the “traditionalists’’ within the DPS administration. “The first thing you have to realize about traditionalists is that they think ideas don’t come from teachers,’' she asserts. “It’s as simple as that. We’re expected to implement what we’re told to, to simply put other people’s plans into effect.’'

Nonetheless, Gray doesn’t expect Booth to throw in the towel just because she’s a classroom teacher. “I have a lot of respect for her,’' he says. “I admire her courage and determination. I don’t see her giving up.’'

Noblet Danks, now sitting on the sidelines, agrees. “I admire Cordia tremendously,’' she says of her former colleague. “She’s very, very gutsy and determined. She has tremendous drive. Nobody can throw her off the track. I don’t like to see her batted around. She’s really paid her dues. She’s been trying to get this school off the ground for two years now. What could it hurt the school district to give her this school?’'

Booth, who is back in her science classroom at Hill Middle School, had hoped the school board would reconsider its position at the August board meeting. She and her supporters were prepared to open Thurgood Marshall at a moment’s notice. Thirty-five parents, she says, have expressed interest in enrolling their children at the school, and seven teachers have promised to join the staff. But for now, Booth can only sit back and wait for the courts to resolve the matter.

“I am committed to staying with this fight,’' she says, “because it’s a good one. And it may mean that we’re talking about opening next year, or even later. And I personally may never get to see the inside of Thurgood Marshall Middle School. But I’m always going to want to be a part of this. I’m in it for the long haul. And it may be a very long haul.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Booth vs. Board of Education