Mayor Wellington Webb threw around a lot of promises during his campaign for re-election last spring. But few have turned sour as quickly as the one he made to the schoolchildren of Denver: to appoint a cabinet-level "education czar" for the city.
Five months after the election and more than two months after the beginning of the school year, Denver is still waiting for its school czar. A Webb aide says the mayor may make an announcement this week--and claims Webb has waited this long so he can ponder the impact of a court ruling ending forced busing in Denver. But there's a simpler explanation for the delay: behind-the-scenes ethnic politics that tore a gaping hole in Webb's carefully constructed selection process.
After a tough election this past spring in which the Webb campaign and its supporters never hesitated to play the race card, the mayor promised to "heal a city" divided. But it's proving a hard promise to keep, especially now that some of his most ardent supporters during the campaign have played a few cards of their own--all over who will get the nod as the city's high-paid "liaison" to the Denver Public Schools.
In one corner stands a faction of some of the most active members of the Hispanic community, who claim credit for getting Webb re-elected and argue that because Denver Public Schools is overwhelmingly dominated by Hispanic students, the city's education czar should be Hispanic, too.
In another corner is city councilwoman Joyce Foster, who has pushed Webb to appoint her own council aide, Carol Boigon, to the $60,000-to-$70,000-per-year post. If Boigon doesn't get the job, Foster's good graces--and her considerable influence in Denver's Jewish community--may be lost.
Finally, Webb has to contend with his own search committee, a group of 27 ethnically diverse citizens from high school students to university chancellors who volunteered to take a list of 286 applicants and from it find the right person for the job--with the understanding that the process would be free from political cronyism.
It didn't take long for Webb's neatly orchestrated exercise to go haywire. Despite the safeguards taken by the search committee, the appearance of cronyism remained when its job was done. One of the four finalists chosen by the group--and Webb's favorite--was none other than Boigon, who not only was Foster's preordained pick but had taken the summer off from her city job to work on the Webb campaign.
Before Webb could make an announcement, though, a group of other Webb supporters got wind of Boigon's apparent selection and went ballistic. That group of minority politicos--most prominently Denver Housing Authority boardmember Nita Gonzales and state legislator Glenda Swanson Lyle--set out to ambush the Boigon appointment. The mayor's office responded by putting off the decision, sputtering about Webb's "comfort level" with the four finalists and hinting that the entire search may be scrapped altogether.
Even Webb staffers don't seem to know what the mayor plans to do about the mess. Aide Peter Groff insists that his boss still intends to make his selection from among the four finalists recommended by the search committee. But mayoral spokeswoman C.L. Harmer tells a slightly different story: Webb, she says, told her only that "he'll make his decision from the pool of 286 candidates who originally applied."
One thing is certain, sighs Harmer: "This is the appointment from hell."
Webb's record on educational issues was a soft spot at which mayoral opponents Mary DeGroot and Bob Crider took aim in last spring's campaign. Webb responded to the charges by taking up the banner himself, pledging to appoint a cabinet-level position that would act to find efficiencies in coordination between the city and the school system. The position was nicknamed "education czar" by the press and the Webb campaign. And the mayor rode it to victory.
That dramatic win, however, came only after a mayoral campaign noted for its racial divisiveness. Webb began the volley of angry charges and outraged denials in October 1994, even before challenger Mary DeGroot announced that she was in the race. "Mary thinks if she sees four or five black people sitting together that they're automatically plotting an overthrow," Webb told a reporter. The mayor later apologized for the comment, but the race card, once dealt, continued to be played.
When DeGroot attacked the city's minority contracting system as corrupt and accused Webb of cronyism, the mayor's supporters fired back that DeGroot's charges were poorly disguised attacks on affirmative action. When DeGroot said the mayor was soft on crime, the Webb campaign accused DeGroot of refusing to attend forums sponsored by black and Hispanic newspapers--newspapers that later penned editorials supporting Webb. Webb supporter Ana Marie Sandoval called DeGroot a racist at a press conference--and she wasn't the only one to conjure up the incendiary term.
One of the loudest shots fired at DeGroot came from Webb supporter and District 4 city councilwoman Joyce Foster. The wife of the popular Rabbi Steven Foster of Temple Emanuel said her fellow councilwoman's proposed "maximum-harassment policy" for gang members was nothing but a "code word" for hassling black and Hispanic youths. Foster also accused DeGroot of playing on racial fears by opposing a curfew detention center in the mostly white neighborhood of Washington Park. The Fosters lent their considerable political weight to the Webb campaign, even inviting the mayor to Temple Emanuel and asking him to address the congregation.
The June 6 runoff between Webb and DeGroot was close, and the votes ran strongly along racial lines. In his acceptance speech, Webb spoke of "healing" the wounds of a city divided by the racially charged campaign. "This city should be one city," he said to the celebrating crowd at his victory party.
Along with healing the city, Webb promised to lend a hand whipping its beleaguered school system into shape. And it didn't take him long to leap to the task. A week after the election, the mayor met with DPS superintendent Irv Moskowitz and school board president Aaron Gray. Ten days later he appointed University of Denver chancellor Dan Ritchie and city-councilman-turned-TCI-lobbyist Tim Sandos to co-chair the 27-person search committee. Their charge was to create a job description for the education czar, advertise for the position and come up with a list of three finalists for Webb to choose from. And they were supposed to do it all in five weeks.
"It was an incredibly short period of time," says Ed Barton, general manager of a local executive search firm and a member of the search committee. But Webb seemed determined to push the process, says committee member Amy Truby of the League of Women Voters. "We told Peter [Groff, the Webb aide assigned to the issue] in the first meeting that we needed more time, that this schedule was totally unrealistic," Truby says. "But he came back to us [from the mayor] and said that's the way it's going to be."
According to the schedule drawn up for the search committee, the mayor wanted a list of finalists by August 22 so he could appoint one and have the person on the job by September 5, the first day of school. But before they could even advertise the position, the members of the search committee had to figure out just what the education czar was supposed to do. That process included community meetings to learn how the public thought the position should work and what skills the "perfect person" for the position would hold.
"By the time we were done, the [candidate] probably had to walk on water," remembers Foster, who acknowledges that she and a handful of other elected officials participated in the first stage of the search process (the councilwoman says she was involved because she already sat on a school/city advisory committee appointed by Webb and felt she could provide insight). "The mayor insisted, and we agreed, that all elected officials recuse themselves before the actual reviewing of resumes and interviewing began," adds Foster.
But Foster was hardly a disinterested party. Her participation on the search committee--she helped create a job description and a recruiting ad--came after the councilwoman had made it clear to Webb that she had "a wonderful recommendation" in mind for the position: her administrative aide and longtime friend, Carol Boigon.
Boigon is an old hand at local politics, having worked over the years for Governor Roy Romer, the Colorado Democratic Party and the Denver branch of the Clinton/Gore campaign. She received her teaching certificate 26 years ago and taught school for two years in the early 1970s before her children were born. More recently she has served as chair of religious education at Temple Emanuel, taught third- and seventh-graders at the Temple's after-school programs, and volunteered at Park Hill Elementary and Smiley Middle School. Hired as an aide to Foster in 1993, Boigon took a two-month leave from her $40,000-per-year position last summer to volunteer as a field organizer in Park Hill for Webb's campaign.
Boigon insists that her selection as a finalist had nothing to do with the work she did for Webb. "I suppose you could make that argument if there hadn't been this gigantic public process," she says. "When [Webb] said there was going to be a public process, I thought I could get through it if my credentials are as good as I think they are."
And Foster downplays the extent of her pro-Boigon lobbying with Webb. "I called him," Foster explains, "and I said `I have a wonderful recommendation for you for this position,' and he said `Joyce, I'm going to put together a panel. I think it's the cleanest way to go,' and I said `Okay, that makes sense, it's fair.' I mean, every person who worked for him or voted for him felt they had entree, so this really was the best thing to do."
The advertisement for the education czar position ran during the week of July 29 in the Denver dailies. As the resumes poured in and the process neared the decision-making stage, Joyce Foster, city councilwoman Susan Casey and school-board members like Lynn Coleman bowed out of the process, as Webb had insisted all elected officials do.
The committee had less than two weeks from the time applications arrived to the time Webb wanted a list of finalists. But it tried not to cut corners. The members split into three subcommittees so that no one person could be seen as shepherding a candidate through the entire process.
Community activist Kay Schomp, the wife of car dealer Ralph Schomp, was on the subcommittee whose job it was to take the 286 responses and pare them down to fewer than 30. The six people who were active on the committee--a culturally diverse bunch that included Nita Gonzales and black businessman Les Barry--worked feverishly for three days, says Schomp.
Bea Branscombe, one of the subcommittee's four white members, says she was impressed with how smoothly the group worked together. "It was fascinating to me that...these very diverse people agreed that out of some 280 applicants that 24 should be further looked at," says Branscombe.
Gonzales seconds Branscombe's feeling of unity at that point in the process. "We were very in sync," Gonzales says. "We were all pretty close on the 24."
Nobody complained then about a lack of Hispanic candidates, Kay Schomp adds bluntly. "I was rather surprised, because I've known Nita Gonzales for a long time, and if any one was going to make that noise, Nita was," she says. "But there were Hispanics in our choices. It was a remarkably coalescent group. We weren't all the same kinds of people."
Amy Truby says simply, "I didn't know the color of half of the people I was recommending."
The 24 names were forwarded to the next subcommittee for a second screening, reference checks, and a check of whether the applicants realized they'd have to live in Denver to get the job. The second group, chaired by Elaine Berman of the Piton Foundation, was composed of two whites (Berman and Barbara Volpe), one Asian-American (Tom Migaki of the city auditor's office), one African-American (DPS assistant superintendent Twila Norman), one Hispanic (North High School principal Joe Sandoval), and one woman of both black and Hispanic ancestry (Clara Villarosa, owner of the Hue-man Experience Bookstore).
The second group finished its review in three days, using the Piton Foundation as a sort of phone bank. Eight names were passed on to the third subcommittee, which was chaired by Dan Ritchie. Three of the nominees were Hispanic. The rest were white. All were women.
The interview committee included four whites--Ritchie, Barbara O'Brien of the Children's Fund, Marilee Utter of Trillium Corporation and Kathryn Sansing, a student from Manual High School--along with one Hispanic (Tim Sandos) and one African-American (Anna Jo Haynes of Mile Hi Child Care). It was at that stage that concerns first began to be raised about ethnic percentages--and they had nothing to do with Hispanics.
Actually, says Sandos, his group was concerned about the lack of men and the lack of African-American candidates. "We had ethnic diversity in each of the selection committees...but still there was a concern that the ethnic diversity [of the final eight] wasn't as well-established," says Sandos. "How do you control that?"
Sandos says that of the three Hispanic applicants, one couldn't make it to the interview session, which took place over the weekend of August 17. So seven candidates, two Hispanics and five whites, were interviewed by the subcommittee.
According to Sandos, all seven were forwarded to the mayor. "I don't know how the next cut [down to four finalists] was made," Sandos says. "We forwarded all seven candidates to the mayor's office."
But Webb aide Peter Groff says that the final cut was made on the basis of the interview committee's recommendations. "They sent all seven names to the mayor, but they recommended four top candidates," Groff says. And that's who the mayor interviewed: Susan Pearce, a former co-director of the Washington Park Early Learning Center; JoAnn Garner Caruso, a DPS volunteer, Erlinda Archuleta, a former DPS principal who now works at the state department of education; and Boigon.
Erlinda Archuleta says she interviewed with the mayor on August 22--and was called the next day by Peter Groff, who told her she was out of the running. She says she hasn't heard anything more about the position, or the ensuing controversy, since. Susan Pearce interviewed with the mayor on August 23, the same day the Denver dailies printed the names of the four finalists. Pearce says Groff called her within hours of her interview and told her she was one of two finalists and that she needed to submit personal financial information for review by staffers. Carol Boigon didn't interview with the mayor until August 27. Afterward, she says, she also was asked to submit financial information to the mayor's office but wasn't told she was one of two finalists. (JoAnn Garner Caruso could not be reached for comment.)
Susan Pearce says Webb scheduled a second interview with her on Monday, August 28, but canceled. A week went by, and the mayor, who had planned to make an appointment in time for the start of the first day of school, didn't. Webb spokeswoman C.L. Harmer says the mayor "needed to feel comfortable with the person" he selected and had decided to take his time. Later, members of city council--Joyce Foster included--were told that the mayor was holding off because of the September 14 decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch ending forced busing in Denver.
But there was another reason for the delay, say sources--the political baggage Webb felt was carried by each of the four finalists. Susan Pearce had decided that spring to pull her daughter out of DPS and send her instead to the private Stanley British Primary School; JoAnn Garner Caruso was new to town; Erlinda Archuleta had never been particularly active in the Hispanic community; and since Carol Boigon had volunteered for the mayor's campaign, appointing her to the high-paying job would look like a payback.
So Webb stalled--and things only got worse.
Pearce says she didn't hear from the mayor's office again until nearly a month later. Peter Groff called her on September 26, she says, to tell her she didn't get the job. "He said the mayor was going to go in a different direction," she says. "I think he even said to me that the mayor was looking at different names." Pearce says that she assumed Webb was looking at people beyond the four finalists but that she also heard rumors Boigon was going to get the position.
Groff, meanwhile, confirms that Boigon and Pearce were the two finalists and that the mayor told him to call Pearce and tell her she was not going to get the job. But while word began to spread that Boigon was Webb's pick, Boigon says she heard nothing from the mayor's office.
That's because the mayor was hearing plenty.
Several members of Webb's Hispanic Advisory Committee hit the roof when they heard Boigon was going to be appointed, says Pierre Jimenez, a local Hispanic activist. "It goes back to the concept that every teacher you had in elementary school was a white woman," he explains. "It didn't make sense in a district with over 40 percent Hispanic enrollment."
Hispanic children make up 45 percent of the DPS student population. Schools such as Smedley, Swansea, Valdez and Bryant-Webster all have student populations that are more than 87 percent Hispanic, and the student bodies at West and North High School are more than three-quarters Hispanic.
Jimenez claims that Webb has little choice about taking complaints from the Hispanic community seriously. "[We're] right on the heels of an election where the Hispanic community really came out for him," he says. "We have the numbers to prove it in the 4th and 5th districts."
According to Jimenez, the problem wasn't that Boigon was a Webb campaign worker--just that she was white. And he wasn't alone in his criticism.
Nita Gonzales says she was very upset when she heard the mayor might appoint a white woman to the position. "Over the last 300 years, we've made decisions based on race," she says, "mostly the white race. I think we need to give this opportunity to a person of color."
Gonzales talked with fellow Hispanic Advisory Committee member Veronica Barela, a Hispanic activist who gets city money to run the NEWSED community development program along South Santa Fe Drive. Barela also co-chairs the People of Color Coalition with state representative Glenda Swanson Lyle. Lyle and Barela agreed to put the issue on the agenda for an upcoming meeting with Webb.
Lyle, who is black, says she and several members of the People of Color Coalition (including Gonzales, Barela and two Native Americans, Linda Yardley and George Tinker) met with the mayor during the third week of September. She says the coalition was in agreement not only that the person appointed not be white, but that the person must be Hispanic.
"It's kind of typical, don't you think?" Lyle says, referring to the search committee's selection of three whites among the four finalists. "It so often happens that way, and I'm not sure why. So we wanted to forward our expression of concern to the mayor." Lyle says the mayor indicated he was "going to go back and take a look."
Gonzales says she took that remark as a good sign. "My understanding from the meeting was that he was looking outside of the finalists," she says. The group wasn't willing to settle for the appointment of Archuleta, adds Gonzales, because "the Coalition wanted people who had been involved at the grassroots level. We wanted this position to be [reserved for] a kick-ass-and-take-names kind of person." Archuleta, in her opinion, didn't qualify.
"All I need," Gonzales fairly spits, "is another white missionary mother."
Foster bristles when told about Gonzales's remark. "I think that's an unfortunate comment," she says. "I think the position should go to the best person regardless of race or religion," emphasizes the councilwoman, whose friend Boigon is also Jewish. "It should go to a person who can get things done for neighborhoods and for children and get these bureaucracies to talk to one another." Foster also adds that it is essential for the person in the position to understand city government, to be able to apply for grant monies, to know the ins and outs of bureaucracy--all of which, she says, are Boigon strengths.
Clara Villarosa of the Hue-man Experience says she can understand why people are making race an issue. But she defends the search-committee process.
"Suppose you're down to the white missionary mother who is much more qualified and able to do a better job?" asks Villarosa. "My sense is that I'd lean to a person of color if they were equally qualified...but if they're less qualified and you're saying, `Let's put a less qualified person in that position,' then that's a different statement."
C.L. Harmer confirms that a meeting with the People of Color Coalition took place. But, contrary to Gonzales's recollection, Harmer says the mayor didn't make any guarantees about ditching the search committee's list of finalists.
"The mayor stated earlier that [Matsch's] court decision prompted him to ponder the decision, to decide whether it affects the focus," says Harmer. "He's trying to assess that. Plus, all the time he's got to dedicate to educational issues he's devoted to passing the [DPS] mill levy."
Webb's latest public statement on the education czar came two weeks ago, at a League of Women Voters meeting. At that point, notes Harmer, the mayor said he'd make a decision on November 8, the day after the mill-levy vote. That way, says Harmer, "he doesn't have 285 of the 286 people who applied angry with him before they vote."
Just how Webb arrived at that logic is hard to say: 282 of those people conceivably would already carry a grudge, since the names of the four finalists were published two months ago. And if Webb does name his education czar this week, it will be the first time he's met a deadline since beginning the search process.
Boigon, still twisting in the wind, says she hasn't heard anything from the mayor since she dropped off her financial information back in late August. The members of Webb's search committee are also waiting for an answer--and may launch a few political broadsides of their own if Webb winds up tossing aside their recommendations.
"He's the one who requested that we speed up the process, and now he's going to invalidate it by not selecting one of the finalists?" school board member Lynn Coleman responds with rising anger. "I'd be very disappointed in that decision. So many people thought this [search committee] was going to be a genuine offer. Our time has been wasted!"
"I can't believe he'd do that," says Foster when told that the mayor may start the process over. "It was a very good panel of people, and he had great expertise. I don't know why he would do that."
Kay Schomp also won't be pleased if Webb abandons the committee's work. "There were a lot of very, very credible, well-known, responsible people in [the search committee]," says Schomp. "I don't know how it could have been handled any differently...It's a little like Bosnia in your own backyard.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.