Opinion: DPS must focus on students, not a new bond for buildings

Denver’s students desperately need a superintendent and school board that will ensure student safety and learning every day. Denver has quickly fallen from one of the most successful urban school districts in the nation to one of the worst in Colorado.

Parents fear for their children’s safety. There are regular reports of weapons in schools. Fewer than one in five low-income elementary school students is reading at grade level.

Now is exactly not the time to give Denver Public Schools a billion dollars in new funding. The leadership of the district is running DPS into the ground.

It is shocking and inexcusable that there have been no significant changes in safety policies in the 15 months since the murder of East High School student Luis Garcia, or the preventable shooting of two school administrators.

Weapons continue to be a major problem in Denver’s schools while the public has even less visibility into what is being done to address these problems. Students found with guns on campus are allowed to return to school with daily weapon searches.

Student achievement in DPS cratered after the pandemic and has shown no signs of recovering, while many other Colorado school districts have bounced back.  Only 13% of Denver’s low-income elementary and middle school students are reaching math proficiency and the growth numbers for high school math are getting worse relative to most school districts in the state.

The district had slow but steady increases in achievement for all groups of students whether Black, Latino, White, non-low-income or low-income for over a decade. DPS is now moving in the opposite direction with achievement becoming worse for nearly every group of students on math and literacy since coming out of the pandemic.

Denver, like most large cities is losing enrollment because of rising housing costs, gentrification, and families having fewer children. The negative impact on student learning is compounded significantly each year as needed classroom dollars are diverted to fund many half-empty school buildings. Denver’s surrounding districts, Jefferson County and Aurora have stepped up to address this fiscal problem by “right-sizing” their districts through program consolidation and school closure, ensuring more dollars go to teacher pay, staff, and classroom supplies than underused facilities.

Given the school board’s fiscal mismanagement and inability to address this fundamental structural problem, it makes no sense to give the district more money. DPS must have a plan to address its growing fiscal problems before receiving more funding.

Yes, our schools are underfunded, and teachers are underpaid. Buildings need to be upgraded with air conditioning. But first we need to make sure student safety and learning needs are being addressed while the board effectively manages their budget.

Despite last November’s election of new school board members with a clear mandate to have the district focus on safety, achievement, fiscal management while holding the superintendent accountable, little has changed, other than fewer drama-filled board meetings.

There is no new achievement plan, strategy to bring spending in alignment with declining enrollment, or any effort to ensure the superintendent is accountable for student success.

In fact, there is growing evidence the district’s downward spiral is accelerating with no substantive evaluation of the superintendent, senior leadership silenced, staff working in fear, and many of the best district’s best educators leaving.

It will take years for DPS to build a core of educators committed to serving students better.

Twenty years ago, DPS had falling student enrollment, declining test scores, and less than half of low-income students graduating from high school. Thanks to broad and deep community leadership combined with in-depth media coverage of the challenges in DPS, the school board changed, and a series of superintendents were able to get the district on an improvement path. These efforts from 2002-2019 resulted in student achievement, graduation rates and college admissions rising for all student groups.

With devasting problems growing once more, Denver voters are again at an important crossroads. Voters can demand the district address these clear problems before supporting the bond or they can allow themselves to be distracted by calls for needed air conditioning. I’ll be the first to call for a billion-dollar bond once the district has stabilized its budget and enacted policies ensuring a safe quality school environment for all students with clear measurable targets. But until this happens, we need to say “no, not now.”

Van Schoales is the former President of A+ Colorado, a former teacher, Denver School Principal, active Democrat and has never not supported an education tax increase or bond until now without a change by the DS board.

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