Denver mayor calls school board 'dysfunctional,' blames it for supt. leaving

Denver Public Schools
Posted at 3:47 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 16:30:46-05

DENVER — The Denver School Board is drawing criticism from ex-members, Mayor Michael Hancock and former Mayor Federico Pena over the upcoming departure of Superintendent Susana Cordova, who earlier this month announced she was taking a job in Dallas.

Hancock and Pena voiced their criticism in a joint letter Monday, calling the board "dysfunctional" and saying some board members "were recruited and have opposed [Cordova's] efforts at almost every opportunity." The mayors said the board undermined Cordova's efforts as superintendent.

Their letter was immediately met with pushback from board member Tay Anderson, who called the current and former mayors' letter "an overreach of government."

Hancock "has a lot of nerve," Anderson tweeted, before later issuing a statement that Hancock "should worry about finding solutions to homelessness, but he is continuing FALSE claims against the Denver School Board."

"I would expect a Mayor to have more decency to honor the will of the voters of Denver and the Constitution of the State of Colorado," Anderson tweeted.

Anderson touted the board's efforts toward improving mental health resources, expanding support for LGBTQ+ students and educating students about gun violence.

Anderson pushed back on the notion that those efforts made the board "dysfunctional."

Hancock and Pena also said they found it "troubling" that teachers went on strike shortly after Cordova was named superintendent, saying that "past Anglo, male superintendents were never 'struck.'"

The letter of criticism from Hancock and Pena followed an op-ed in Westword over the weekend in which 14 former school board members blamed the current board for creating a "hostile" work environment for the superintendent.

"You simply have to watch a DPS Board of Education meeting to see the way the superintendent is interrupted, talked over, and routinely discounted by board members," the ex-members wrote for Westword. "In community meetings, through their political campaigns, and on social media, some board members were painfully disrespectful, undermined her leadership, and treated her in a way that was neither fair nor democratic."

Hancock and Pena called on the board to form an independent committee of residents to lead the search for a new superintendent, to develop a strategic plan beyond Denver 2020, and "restore the confidence of the broader community," in particular communities of color.

"It's time to put aside personal political agendas and work collaboratively as a board should," the mayors wrote.

By Monday evening, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education released the following statement, in which they said Cordova's departure took them by surprise:

Thank you to everyone for your continued support and feedback as we navigate yet another difficult transition for Denver Public Schools. We are sending this statement to speak to Denverites who are made up of our students, our staff, our neighbors, and our community members.

We speak to you as duly elected members, selected by you, to represent your voice on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. We are former teachers in DPS, we are organizers, we are parents of DPS students, we are bilingual. We are a recent alum, a reverend, a lawyer, a child of immigrants, and a former lieutenant governor. We are honored to lead the students of DPS into a future where all students can receive the best public education to thrive and learn. Students are always at the forefront of all we do.

We are grateful for the many comments, suggestions, and voices that have provided us with a lot of feedback and much to consider. We welcome the chance to talk with everyone including fellow elected leaders, once we have a process in place. We also want and encourage the many voices in our community, who care so deeply about our schools, to help us during this process.
We always receive feedback from the communities we represent with openness and reflection. Our goal has remained steadfast; ensuring we have the best schools for the students in our community.

We have been working through the timeline for transition, naming an interim, and a process for a superintendent search. We ask for your patience keeping in mind we are in the midst of a pandemic. We will share the process with the community before any decisions
are made. We will also announce an interim leader during the first week of December.

The Board has been clear that the Superintendent and her staff focus on the crisis priorities over the last 6 months in order to best serve our students and staff during this pandemic. In addition, the superintendent and the Board agreed to delay work on the next Denver Plan to best meet the urgent needs of our families in DPS. And, we know that this board believes in community voice as evidenced by the work we’ve taken on and how we’ve elevated students, teachers and principals voices. In addition we’ve highlighted the voices of the communities who elected us. We are committed to listening to all voices in our search, so that our students can have the public schools that they deserve.

All Board members were surprised and saddened by Susana Cordova’s departure. We wish her the best of luck in her new job in Dallas. Any superintendent taking over when she did would have stepped into a difficult position. When she started, DPS was in transition as we came off of 10 years of one administration. That meant there were challenging situations to manage, with new POVs When we hired her, we recognized that she had the skills and passion to work with DPS. As we face leadership changes, one thing that stays the same is our commitment to prioritizing our students.

How we spend our time over the next days and months will be critical. Any time we spend discussing external claims takes us away from our priorities focused on placing an interim superintendent to guide us through this transition; and reopening our schools for our students and teachers.

Like we always say to our students, be kind to each other. We are community and we will need each other. We call on everyone to model for our students how we can work together to build a strong public education system that we can all be proud of. We too always welcome constructive help and feedback. We particularly welcome help from any city leader, former school board member, and any concerned community leader to reopen our schools for a safe return in January.

Again, we look forward to finding the next great leader of DPS. We will continue to work towards our vision of grassroots decision making, and elevating the voices of our most precious stakeholders. We commit to seeing this moment as an opportunity to reflect on the past but not repeat it, and embrace the possibilities for all of our students. We will be providing updates to the community as we work to find a new leader for DPS.

Denver Public Schools is going through more leadership changes, outside of Cordova's departure.

Mark Ferrandino, deputy superintendent of operations, and Jennifer Holladay, associate chief of portfolio management, will be leaving Colorado's largest school district over the next two months.

Ferrandino is taking over the role of executive director at Colorado's Department of Revenue, beginning in late December. Holladay is leaving the school district in early January.

"The timing is, undeniably, difficult," Cordova said in her announcement about Ferrandino and Holladay leaving. "But I want to assure all of you that these changes are not the result of my decision to pursue a new opportunity. Team DPS remains resilient and strong across the city because of the dedication, the talent, and the enormous heart of our people."

The school board hopes to announce an interim superintendent by early December. Cordova's departure date has not been announced yet.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association issued a statement on the matter on Tuesday:

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association issued a statement on the matter on Tuesday:

“DCTA has worked diligently with the Board of Education and Superintendent to put students first. We commend the Board of Education for establishing crisis priorities so that we can ensure that our students and staff have the safe and healthy learning environments they deserve.

“We acknowledge the Board and the Superintendent pausing the work on a new strategic plan to thoroughly deal with the 100 year pandemic we are currently in and we have faith that the strategic planning work will soon be continued.

“DCTA will continue to work toward safe, sustainable and equitable working and learning environments for students and educators. We have collaborated on remote learning plans, and negotiated a subsequent agreement around School Safety and Personal Protective Equipment.

“We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the Board of Education and the new superintendent as we navigate these uncertain times together to provide the schools that Denver student’s deserve.

“Additionally, we know that the school board will address diversity and inclusiveness within their strategic planning work.”