Denver Public Schools board consumed by infighting ahead of new school year

Superintendent Alex Marrero’s request to the board overseeing Denver Public Schools was simple: Can you start working together?

“I’m asking you to set the standard for leadership,” he told the seven directors last week before they embarked on what was supposed to be a day of team-building at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.

For months, infighting among the members of the district’s Board of Education has spilled into public view with accusations of misogyny and racism, suspicions of a coup attempt and, most recently, talk of censuring board members — all as the directors wrestle with how to function under a new governance model adopted last year.

The daylong retreat, which took place Aug. 8, was supposed to help school board members work on their relationships with one another.

But after more than eight hours together, and a subsequent session three days later that ended in acrimony, the board’s internal strife remains far from healed. The retreat’s facilitators offered the board additional sessions to work through their disputes before one mediator finally expressed dismay at their lack of progress.

“The community describes you as dysfunctional,” Dante James, co-founder of The Gemini Group, a local consulting firm, told the board during the second meeting, on Thursday evening. “Students describe you as dysfunctional.”

James told the board the community is divided, a sentiment echoed by Marrero earlier in the week when he addressed racial tensions.

“I hear a little about this Black vs. brown (fighting). Whoever wins in that battle, I always lose,” Marrero told the board, noting he identifies as Afro-Latino. “There are a lot of who we serve who are in the same boat.”

The breakdown in the directors’ relationships began soon after new leadership took over the board last winter, despite the fact that all the members had something in common: They were backed by the teachers union. (The newest director, Charmaine Lindsay, was appointed this summer following the resignation of former board member Brad Laurvick.)

Directors said in interviews and in last week’s meetings that they disagree on how the board should operate under what’s known as policy governance. This model, adopted by the previous school board, lays out the board’s goals for the superintendent to achieve, includes policies on how directors should conduct themselves and says the board should speak with “one voice.”

Vice President Tay Anderson said in an interview that he feels board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán’s implementation of the policy is punitive and prevents members from speaking individually to the community on issues affecting the district, such as potential school closures and declining enrollment.

This has led to disagreements over directors holding town hall meetings on their own, and, more crucially, over how much power the president should have over the rest of the board.

The tumult has erupted at board meetings and in the media, with Gaytán telling Westword and Denver7 in June that she believed Anderson and another board member, Scott Esserman, were looking to remove her as president. Anderson denied the accusation.

“There was only one individual (Gaytán) who board members have any sort of conflict with and that one member had conflict with several different people,” Anderson said when asked about last week’s retreat.

Gaytán, who previously has accused Anderson and Esserman of behaving aggressively in meetings, refuted the characterizations.

“Although Director Anderson said I’m the source of the conflict, there’s clear video record and statements from him where he’s showing his actions towards me,” she said. “As a leader on this board, I look forward to moving forward together as we work through some of the interpersonal conflicts so we can support the operational work of our superintendent.”

Gaytán, Anderson and Esserman clashed at a June meeting when the board struggled to agree on who should fill the vacant seat left by Laurvick’s resignation. One of the candidates, Julie Bañuelos, had brought an attorney to a meeting with Esserman and Anderson.

Gaytán supported Bañuelos at the meeting, saying, “As a woman of color I understand (her actions). I understand when there’s two men who behave a certain way in an interview if you’re not sure if they’re going to come at you some kind of way you’re going to feel…”

Esserman denied behaving inappropriately and Anderson said he was offended that Gaytán portrayed him “as an aggressive Black man trying to attack a woman.”

“We needed to get serious”

Last week wasn’t the first time the board overseeing Colorado’s largest school district has been called dysfunctional.

In 2020, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and former Mayor Fredrico Peña wrote a scathing letter, blaming directors for the resignation of former Superintendent Susana Cordova and criticizing the board for having no vision for the district beyond their plan for that year.

“They mistreated her at public board meetings and interfered in the day-to-day management of the school system, rather than collaboratively establishing policies and direction for the district,” Hancock and Peña wrote in the 2020 letter.

The recollections of directors Carrie Olson and Scott Baldermann of when the previous board first began considering the policy governance model differ slightly, but both said the board became more focused on it after Cordova left and the mayors sent their letter.

“We didn’t have a vision at the time, but we were also dealing with school closures and were in a really tough position” because of the pandemic, Baldermann said.

But, he added, “I totally agree with (the letter). I took that to heart because I agreed. We needed to get serious.”

Olson, who served as board president until late November, said that while the board had operated in a way that could be considered policy governance, it wasn’t formalized and there was no clear framework of what that meant.

So the school board called in Matt Cook, the director of public policy and advocacy with the Colorado Association of School Boards, to help.

Roughly 40 school boards among Colorado’s 178 districts use the policy governance model. “The primary purpose is to help the board focus on policy,” he said.

Policy governance helps directors define the role of the board, including that of the president, and the role of the superintendent, Cook said.

Denver’s past school boards had a history of micromanaging superintendents and the new governing model is supposed to help directors move away from issuing directives, Baldermann said.

Policy governance works like this: Instead of the school board passing a resolution that directs the superintendent to do something, such as removing school resource officers from campuses, it has members set an “end policy” that is more of a goal they want the district to achieve.

This gives the superintendent something to work toward, but flexibility on how to achieve the goal. It also gives the board a way to measure the superintendent’s performance, Baldermann said. The superintendent is even able to set metrics that the board can use to determine whether goals are being met.

By enacting the governing model, school board members hoped to attract a strong replacement for Cordova, he said.

But they also knew that some of the language in the policy would need to be changed after November’s election of new board members, Olson said.

Different views about how the board should operate

In the room where the DPS school board met at Wings Over the Rockies, the conference table was so long that there was little seating for anyone not participating in the public meeting. Unlike most meetings held by the board, the one on Aug. 8 was not streamed online — a decision that a DPS employee told the directors was made because the district wanted them to be able to talk without having a camera present.

The retreat was held just two weeks before students and teachers were expected to return from summer break, and on the agenda were icebreakers, a talking stick and a session tackling race and gender issues.

At the head of the table was a group of facilitators leading the meeting. On the other end sat DPS employees, including the district’s general counsel and, for a brief period in the morning, Marrero. (Baldermann called into the meeting as he was out of town.)

It wasn’t until after they had lunch that the school board’s members really began to discuss the conflicts between them. Four board members — Gaytán, Anderson, Esserman and Michelle Quattlebaum — led the conversation.

The discussion began around the governance model the directors inherited from their predecessors, namely the policies that deal with the board member code of conduct and covenants.

Quattlebaum and Gaytán went back and forth on the latter’s use of the phrase “my board,” with the former explaining why it bothered her. Gaytán said her use of the phrase was a reflection of how she views her role as president and the responsibilities of the role.

“What I hear is: I am a board of one and you guys are my supporting cast,” Quattlebaum said.

“That is not how I view my leadership of the board,” Gaytán said, adding that there are responsibilities that weigh more heavily on the president of the board.

Esserman eventually weighed in, saying, “We have different understandings of what our roles are on the board. Under policy governance, we are all accountable for our behaviors on the board.”

An internal survey taken by the school board found that every director believes they comply with two policies that center on board member conduct and relationships, but a majority of them felt that their colleagues don’t follow the rules laid out in the governing model.

“Responses indicated that the most significant barriers to increasing compliance are self-interests, egos, mistrust and varying belief systems,” according to a copy of the document obtained by The Denver Post via a public records request.

The survey also found that some directors found the board’s conversations about race were unhealthy and some think that men dominated meetings. Some directors also said they were “very concerned with being labeled racist or anti-Black and were concerned with retaliation both during meetings and on social media,” according to the document.

“This is harmful” 

Accusations that directors are violating policies came up again during the meeting held three days after the retreat. So did the school board members’ different opinions of the role of the president.

“Some of my colleagues and I differ where I believe that there are some unilateral powers of the president that you all may not believe that I should have,” Gaytán said during the meeting.

With the board’s disputes still unresolved after the daylong retreat, the facilitators had returned to help them work through their issues once again. But multiple directors questioned how much more they could accomplish in such sessions — and then the proceedings became heated.

During the meeting, Anderson asked Gaytán to apologize to the school board for speaking about other directors, including him and Esserman, in the press, particularly in the Westword article, in which she accused them of sexism and misogyny. He said it violated board policy.

Gaytán said she felt the issue was bigger than the Westword article and that she has emailed both Anderson and Esserman about what she perceives as their violations of board policy.

“In terms of requesting an apology, I feel that is unfair when as a president, sitting president, one of my responsibilities is to monitor board behavior, to address the violations, which I have done, and I didn’t want to take it as far as censure,” she said.

In fact, Gaytán said during the meeting, there were violations by Anderson and Esserman that she could have brought to the board for a possible censure, but she didn’t believe she had the votes. She said she was hesitant to get into the specifics of those violations in public.

“You didn’t trust that we would agree with you so you didn’t bring it forward, and what I’m saying is that is not the role of the president,” Quattlebaum said. “We have discourse. Things come up and then we take the vote.”

The prospect of a censure surprised Olson, who was president when the board censured — or publicly reprimanded — Anderson last year after an investigation concluded he made intimidating social media posts and flirted with a student before knowing her age. That investigation found anonymous claims of sexual assault levied against Anderson to be unsubstantiated.

“Having been someone who went through the last censure, that was a long, long, long, long process that involved many conversations with a lot of people,” Olson said during Thursday’s meeting. “I just want us to be cautious as a board. (Censure) is the ultimate last course. I’m surprised by that.”

Lindsay, the newest board member, also weighed in, saying that Gaytán should give more details on the alleged violations made by Anderson and Esserman.

“I feel like there’s a lot of holes in what’s being said,” Lindsay said.

At the end of the meeting, Anderson said he was not asking for the board to remove Gaytán as president.

“I’m just asking for you to acknowledge and apologize that what you did was wrong,” he said, adding, “I want to know that you know that what you did was wrong and that you apologized for it and you’re not going to do it again.”

Gaytán refused.

“I’m not apologizing for exposing your misogyny and your sexism,” she told Anderson.

As the discussion grew more heated, multiple arguments broke out among supporters of Gaytán and Anderson who were in the audience watching the meeting, prompting the district to call in security and ask people to leave.

The board hastily ended the meeting.

But before they left, James, one of the facilitators, said he was “disappointed” in the board’s progress. “The community’s divided. There is a Black-brown divide, which should not be.”

“This is harmful,” he said of the school board’s dysfunction. “It’s damaging and the resulting outcomes aren’t going to get any better.”

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