Urban Education

October 10, 2001 1 min read

‘Dumb Rules’ Reviewed

Newly appointed Denver schools chief Jerry Wartgow received a warm welcome from the community as he made the rounds of the 70,000-student school district over the summer.

But sometimes parents or staff members would sneak in a comment, telling Superintendent Wartgow, who started running the district in June, about a school system rule, regulation, or custom that was obsolete, redundant, or just plain dumb.

So Mr. Wartgow formed a “dumb rules” committee to examine those practices, determine their origin, and figure out if they were necessary. Most of all, the committee outlined the steps required to dismantle outdated rules when possible.

The committee, formed in August, has reviewed more than 160 e-mail submissions. The district has posted about 70 of the dumb rules, along with its responses, on its Web site, at

Mr. Wartgow borrowed the idea from the Edmonton public schools in Alberta, Canada. Mary Ellen McEldowney, the Denver district’s general counsel, who heads the committee, said the site has become a “communications mechanism for parents, students, and staff members to get superintendent-level attention for problems large and small.”

Some of the anonymous submissions aren’t about district rules, but are suggestions or rules that have been adopted at a particular school. Some concerns are serious, while others are less consequential.

Still, Ms. McEldowney answers most of the questions, discarding those that are aimed at personnel. She forwards the queries to the appropriate district or school staff member and helps craft the replies.

Why can’t students at Hamilton Middle School wear coats, vests, or jackets in class? That may seem dumb, but it’s a rule adopted by the school’s collaborative-decisionmaking team to reduce the opportunity for students to conceal items in their clothing.

The committee also has changed some existing policies. When an employee asked why district credit cards could not be used online, the rule was eliminated. Ms. McEldowney said that when the rule was originally established, Internet safeguards were not sufficient, and bank officials had advised the district not to use cards for Web purchases.

Mr. Wartgow said he’s learning a lot about the district and the mind-set of his employees.

And, he added: “For every dumb rule, there’s a smart rule behind it.”

—Karla Scoon Reid