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No Laughing Matter

January 24, 2011
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Yesterday, The Denver Post published an editorial condemning a community effort to recall Northeast Denver school board member Nate Easley, Jr. After deriding the recall attempt as “a joke,” they (once again) over-simplified the conflict it represents as being one between those who “want reform” and those who seek to “thwart change.” Revealing its lack of interest in nuance, the editorial board paints everyone who disapproves of Dr. Easley’s job performance as an opponent of charter and magnet schools, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Frequent readers and folks who know me are by now familiar with the story of my separation from the district, and why I’ve become such a vocal critic of its administration. But this incident was also the first time that I became familiar with Dr. Easley, and the dysfunctional nature of Denver’s school board.

After preparing and submitting a ten-page letter about my situation (and a collection of documents to back up my claims) to each board member and Superintendent Boasberg, I made several attempts to contact Dr. Easley because he represents the section of the district where I taught. (If you’re thinking this sounds crazy, remember that there is no established process for probationary teachers to appeal an unfair non-renewal, outside of a long and expensive legal battle.)

The contents of my letter, combined with all of the teacher and community presentations to the Board on May 20, 2010, should have been enough to give the Board pause. That this many talented and committed teachers related similar stories of unexplained and/or retaliatory non-renewals by principals (a number that doesn’t include those who faced similar situations but—rightly—assumed that addressing the Board wouldn’t help their situation) points to a serious issue, where good leadership is concerned.

A sensible organization would have seen this situation for the red flag it is, and would have made some kind of effort to understand whether the decisions that had been made were just or logical. (Notably, Andrea Mérida did, though her interventions and the occasional support of the other members of the “board minority” were unsuccessful.) Instead, the Board took the easy way out, instead of the right way. Likely recognizing that meaningfully examining the claims of teachers who may have been wrongfully non-renewed could set a precedent for doing the same in the future, the majority dismissed the countervailing evidence we presented and voted to uphold the principals’ recommendations.

Now, the Board as a whole has earned some ill-will in the community for its tendency to rubber stamp District decisions instead of examining them. But it’s especially disturbing when the Board’s president acts this way. Responding to the teacher non-renewal votes last spring, Easley said to the Denver Post that (emphasis mine):

The idea that the board would question the process that has gone through a principal, an instructional superintendent, human resources and the superintendent is to me dumbfounding…

I don’t necessarily need to supervise 4,000 teachers as a volunteer. … We want the principal to make difficult decisions. On the other hand, to come back and reverse that decision without having the kind of detail we need because it’s a personnel issue, I don’t think we should do that.

Both quotes reveal a misunderstanding of the function an elected school board is meant to serve. Part of the logic behind having a school board is to vest power in a group of people who are directly accountable to the public, thereby protecting the public’s interests in the event that appointed district officials do sloppy work or make bad decisions. In this case, the “process”– an inflated term for one administrator making a choice, then having his or her superiors blindly sign off on it– did not work, resulting in the loss of some very talented teachers to other districts, and to the profession as a whole.

The latter quote also points to a disturbing attitude Easley seems to hold for his position. When confronted by constituents who feel he isn’t living up to his responsibilities–by missing meetings, ignoring their calls, etc.–  his typical defense is that being a school board member is a volunteer role.

For instance, after a meeting last fall, I asked him why he never answered my letter, phone calls, or emails. In the presence of a constituent and a representative from the US Department of Education, he responded, “Well, you know this is a volunteer position, right? You’re pretty articulate; if you think you could do a better job, maybe you should run next time…” Most elected officials would at least pretend to care and apologize; that he didn’t speaks volumes to me. (Is he actually interested in continuing to serve?) And taken at face value, his statement suggests that he doesn’t care enough to be thoughtful about work he does for free– not exactly what you want to hear from someone serving in an important, but unpaid, role.

All communities deserve representatives who care enough about them and their values to listen to them and take their concerns seriously. That doesn’t mean that they will always agree– there are certainly times when leaders need to speak uncomfortable truths, and push the boundaries of what has become their community’s “conventional wisdom.” But when that’s necessary, good leaders make sure to stay connected to those they serve, to make a case for why change is necessary, and to do their best to ensure that the final decision reflects the whole community’s interests, not just those of its most powerful members, or those with whom they already agree. By contrast, Dr. Easley has allowed himself to be a mascot for a certain kind of reform, that is being done to certain communities instead of with them. He has traded his responsibility to represent his community in order to gain the favor of Denver’s social and political Establishment.

For a community that has gone without an effective, responsive representative, and the students, teachers, parents, and schools who have suffered as a result, that is no joke.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Frederika permalink
    January 25, 2011 7:10 pm

    Y’all need a new school board out there in Denver. What seat is up this year? Next year? Take ’em out one by one. Find electable candidates who appeal to education professionals and the public at large. We did this for the last three years in the second largest school district in Delaware–two new school board members in each of the last three years. Whole new board–whole new perspective. Don’t complain–ORGANIZE. TGFU

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