School & District Management

Ex-Board Members, All Women, Take Denver School Board to Task

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 23, 2020 5 min read
Superintendent Susana Cordova looks on as students work on laptops in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver.

The Denver school board’s dysfunction made it impossible for Superintendent Susana Cordova to execute on a clear vision for the school district, and contributed to her decision to leave, contends an unusual op-ed signed by 14 women who previously served on the school board.

Cordova, who has spent three decades in Denver Public Schools and has led the district since 2018, unexpectedly announced earlier this month that she planned to step down to take on the role of deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in the Dallas district.

The extraordinary letter, which appeared Nov. 21, has national resonance for school district leaders. It surfaces a number of subtexts that have long complicated the school-board-superintendent relationship, including gender imbalances in the upper echelons of school leadership and a lack of school board representation from communities of color.

More generally, it underscores the truism that good governance depends on a well-balanced—if often delicate—relationship between superintendents and school boards.
In Denver specifically, the former school board members wrote, Cordova faced squabbling board members who were at times disrespectful, micromanaged policies, and most of all, never made clear what they specifically expected Cordova to do in leading the district.

“What is most objectionable is that the DPS board has yet to articulate a vision for the district or even a framework to guide the superintendent and her staff. Board members have been making management decisions (the role of the superintendent) and forcing the district to execute on those decisions without providing a coherent plan to educate DPS’s 93,000 students,” reads the letter, which first appeared on the local news site Westword.

Neither the current board President, Carrie Olson, nor Cordova immediately responded to requests for comments. The signatories on the letter, however, said that their goal was not primarily to criticize, but rather to pressure the board to take steps to improve its governance, set a clear vision and goals for the district, and then communicate those clearly as it embarks on a search for a new leader.

“Our worry is that they’ll move forward in a reactive way to hiring the superintendent, rather than slowing down and getting it right,” said Mary Seawell, who served as school board president from 2011 to 2013.

A Change in Direction

In part, the tension in the Mile-High City seems to be the product of a recent change in direction.

For more than a decade, under Superintendents Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, the district had taken an aggressive approach to school improvement—opening new charter schools and “innovative” district schools freed from some traditional rules; the closure of low-performing schools; and district accountability ratings based on student test scores.

In successive board elections in 2017 and 2019, voters elected candidates who were critical of that approach. But the new board hasn’t been clear about articulating where it wants to go next in its return to a more traditional, neighborhood school approach, said Theresa Peña, one of the women who helped to draft the letter and who served as school board president between 2005 and 2009.

“‘Flip the board’ is not a theory of action. Without updating the 2020 plan and without operating as a cohesive governing unit, Cordova’s team was being pulled in all directions,” Peña said. “They’ve never really figured out how to govern as a body, so they’re left identifying activities that each of them pursues as their favorite pet project.”
Cordova’s move capped other signs of instability in the district, including the departure of two senior staffers in the central office. Her announcement that she would leave the district set off waves of speculation in Denver over whether she’d been pushed out, while Texas newspapers surmised that she could be groomed to take over the reins in Dallas.

The breaking point may have been Cordova’s recent evaluation. Though rated as “meeting expectations” overall, Cordova’s lowest score was for equity—a principle that has guided all of her work for the Denver schools. In 2018, Education Week recognized her as part of its Leaders to Learn From project for her work on equity, especially for the school system’s English-language learners.
The letter also suggests that Cordova faced additional obstacles for being a Latina superintendent. (Nationally, research shows that women of color are still underrepresented in principal and superintendent positions and face more obstacles on the pathway to those jobs.)

“It is important to ask if Susana was treated differently and unfairly because she is a woman of color. We believe she was. As women and former school board members, we recognize that Susana was not treated the same as her white male predecessor,” the letter reads.

A ‘Wake-up Call’ for the Denver School Board?

Some current board members say the letter mischaracterizes the board’s current work.
Even before it appeared, Tay Anderson, an at-large board member elected in 2019, told the news site Chalkbeat that the rumor that Cordova was pushed out was false.
And on Twitter, he said the prior board had failed to set clear goals and that other challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, had complicated the superintendent evaluation process.

Recent Education Week data, part of a new project examining the school board-superintendent relationship, shows that school boards fare better on the male-female ratio than that of the superintendent; 53 percent of school board members are women, according to a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,600 school board members. But board members are overwhelmingly white, at about 90 percent. (Denver’s board, while still more diverse than is typical, has fewer Latino board members than it has had in 20 years.)

The decision to sign onto the letter wasn’t easy for all of the signatories. Sharon Bailey, a former board member who wrote a seminal 2016 report on how Black students were faring in Denver, said she ultimately put her name on it because she doesn’t want the district to lose sight of its equity work.

“I had mixed feelings about it, but I care so much for the district; I have children and grandchildren who have been through it,” said Bailey, who now serves as senior advisor for equity initiatives for the district. “I think the board needs to lead. And they need to support the community and the leadership of the district.

“We all, every now and then, need a wake-up call.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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