Watchdog group questions DPS spending, accounting as uncertainty lingers around 2020-21 school year

$61 million budget shortfall projected for 2020-21
Teacher walkout over school funding forces Englewood Schools to cancel all classes on Monday
Posted at 10:23 PM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 10:08:29-04

DENVER -- A watchdog group led by Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, or INC, projected Denver Public Schools could have a budget shortfall of $61 million for the 2020-2021 school year.

The group was critical of Denver Public Schools (DPS) for failures in managing the COVID-19 crisis, among other issues.

“DPS has done a miserable job,” said Hasira Ashemu, co-director of Our Voice Our Schools. “It was already bad before. What is it going to look like next year?”

“The question is: What’s really going on with the money?” said Margaret Bobb, a retired science teacher who taught for nearly three decades at DPS.

INC suggests DPS put a freeze on $35 million in third party consulting contracts and make further cuts to top heavy central administration to help manage the budget issues.

“There are 157 people making an average of $133,000 a year,” Bobb said of DPS central administration. “That adds up to $21 million.”

The group also uncovered questionable accounting practices by DPS, “where they were coding things to ‘dues and fees’ that actually involved things like meals,” Bobb said.

As part of a Colorado open records request - one example of the alleged miscoding is a district dinner at Punch Bowl Social. Three separate transactions at Punch Bowl listed under ‘dues and fees’ total more than $30,000.

“They’ve got to start putting money into the people who really impact the students day in and day out,” Bobb said. “That’s the teachers and others who are in the schools.”

Ashemu said the pandemic has also exposed systemic failures at DPS and other districts statewide.

“Colorado is third in the nation in the equity gap between black and indigenous students and white (students),” Ashemu said.

He said the shift to remote learning has simply put a spotlight on the gap.

“When it was time for us to shift to technology, how many black and indigenous students didn’t already have laptops?” Ashemu said. “And let me be clear, I’m also talking about low-income white students. This is not a race thing. This is a socioeconomic issue. They are going to be found to have been left very far behind.”

Ashemu said working parents, those frontline workers, can’t be home for remote learning all the time.

“They have to go to work, they have to drive the bus. These people have to make society work,” he said.

Bobb said if DPS would move some curriculum specialists in central administration back to schools, the district could open next fall by reducing class sizes and spreading kids out with more staff.

“Two problems solved. Win-win,” Bobb said.

In a statement to Denver7 on Tuesday night, DPS said:

“The implications that Denver Public Schools is financially mismanaged are without merit. DPS prides itself on financial transparency that demonstrates the responsible use of public funds directed towards student success, with budget schedules made available to the public,” the statement read. “DPS is also audited annually… the results of which are also made publicly available.”

The district said third-party contracts directly support students and staff – like transportation services for students with special needs and maintaining and cleaning facilities.

Nevertheless, INC is still seeking an outside forensic accounting audit of DPS.

“So that we don’t again, end up bearing the brunt of the impact of COVID,” Ashemu said. “What this crisis has shown is all the contradictions that exist. It is now time to rectify the past.”

Bobb said she will not rest until the “wasteful” spending stops.

“All resources should be going to the people who work with students, that they have small class sizes,” Bobb said. “Our core value is students first. Well, now is literally the time to put your money where your mouth is.”