Denver wants to revive joint committee with DPS | #schoolsaftey

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston unveiled his first budget for the city since being elected in June at Denver City and County building library room in Denver, Colorado on Thursday, September 14, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Denver leaders on Thursday will announce plans to revive a joint committee with Denver Public Schools that the city hopes will improve communication with the district, a move that already is highlighting tensions with school leaders.

Board of Education President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán expressed concerns about the ordinance that will go before the City Council’s safety committee next week, saying she does not believe the city should require DPS directors or the superintendent to meet with the committee.

School board members also said that while DPS has worked with the city on revising language in the proposal, they have not seen the final draft and were unaware of the news conference with Mayor Mike Johnston scheduled for Thursday until contacted by a reporter.

“The city and school district need to have a partnership that is mutually agreed upon,” said board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, adding, “I also want to ensure that we are being cautious with what the district is agreeing to, to ensure that we are not opening the door to conversations or the assumption that the city is taking ownership or control of our public school system.”

City Council members Amanda Sandoval and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez are sponsoring the ordinance that will restart Denver’s historic City-School Coordinating Committee and have district and city leaders meet six times per year.

They are expected to reveal the details of the proposal during a news conference at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library on Thursday. Johnston, two former mayors — Federico Peña and Wellington Webb — and Educate Denver, a coalition of former board members and politicians, will join them, according to a news release.

“I am not trying to take over anyone’s positions or anything like that,” Sandoval said of the intent behind the proposed ordinance. “I just want to have a formal opportunity for us to all sit down six times a year. That doesn’t seem that egregious to me. But then again, I’m not sitting in their shoes and I’m not facing what they’re facing.”

The proposal’s creation comes as DPS and the school board are facing ongoing criticism from parents, educators and others in the community for infighting and their decisions regarding the district, most notably those related to school safety following the March shooting at East High School.

Sharp disagreements also have emerged between DPS and city leaders and agencies in the past year, including with the Denver Housing Authority over whether a neighborhood facing school closure would have enough children to keep at least one of the facilities targeted for closure open.

Then, earlier this year, after the East shooting, a dispute arose between DPS and then-Mayor Michael Hancock over whether he threatened to use an executive order to put police back into the city’s schools — an allegation Hancock’s office repeatedly denied.

DPS spokesman Scott Pribble declined to address the ordinance Wednesday, saying that the district “is not commenting on the proposal until we know all of the details.”

“Councilwoman Sandoval’s ordinance resurrects a committee that previously existed for decades and will provide an opportunity for greater collaboration and a much stronger partnership between the city and DPS,” Jordan Fuja, spokeswoman for Johnston, said in a text. “This is not a move to take over DPS, but rather increase collaboration for overall success of kids.”

Denver Public School Board President Xóchitl Gaytán addresses members of the media during a press conference in the downtown DPS headquarters to address a whistleblower allegation on August 3, 2023 in Denver Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott/Special to The Denver Post)

“An invitation to collaborate”

Similar committees have existed in the past, including under the tenures of Webb and Peña. Hancock’s administration did not use the committee during his final two terms, Sandoval said.

The focus of the new council ordinance is to modernize language that has been in the city’s codebook since the 1930s, but hasn’t been updated since the 1950s, Sandoval said.

As of Wednesday, she was suggesting the committee be comprised of the mayor, the DPS superintendent, the director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs, two members of the City Council and two school board members.

She cautioned that details still were being worked out before a final draft is released Thursday. The City Council likely wouldn’t adopt the proposed ordinance until November and the language could change anytime before then, Sandoval said.

The earliest the committee would convene would be January, she added.

The goal, Sandoval said, is to foster cross-pollination of ideas. She stressed she isn’t trying to force anyone to meet.

“It’s an invitation to collaborate,” Sandoval said, adding, “I’ve been so taken back by the pushback.”

She said she wants the city, superintendent and school board to work together as Denver is facing challenges that also affect schools, such as the housing and migrant crises.

DPS employees and board members already have a partnership with the City Council and other local governments, Gaytán said.

She first received a draft of the proposed ordinance in late August. At the time, Gaytán said, she told the city that she would support the proposal only if changes were made so that board members aren’t required to participate. She said she also sought flexibility so that Superintendent Alex Marrero could send a liaison when he can’t make meetings.

“I would want the language to be flexible so there isn’t anything in the ordinance that is requiring the DPS Board of Education members to participate because of our governance model,” she said.

The school board’s governance model lays out members’ goals for the superintendent to achieve but leaves the day-to-day operations up to Marrero.

The model also says that the board should speak with “one voice.” This means board members on any potential committee with the city wouldn’t be able to speak on behalf of the superintendent or for the board as a whole during its meetings, Gaytán said.

“I imagine the conversations and discussions taking place in this committee will probably be around more the collaboration of the resources that the city could potentially provide for DPS and those are not conversations that the board would be having with the superintendent or the city,” she said.

Sandoval, Gonzales-Gutierrez and the city attorneys met with an attorney and staff member from DPS after Gaytán expressed concerns regarding the ordinance’s conflict with the board’s governance model, Sandoval said.

During that meeting, the DPS employees said the ordinance did not violate the governance model but asked for time to work on the language, she said.

The City Council members gave DPS more than two weeks to review the language — a deadline Sandoval said they missed — and that when the district did send a red-lined draft, it had been “gutted” and changed to refer to City Council members and the mayor as liaisons to DPS.

“I was very offended (by) their red-lined draft,” Sandoval said, adding that she told the district that it was a “non-starter.”

Plans for a press conference

Gaytán said she had believed that the district would see the proposed ordinance’s final language before it was presented to a City Council committee, but that has not happened.

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