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Op-Ed: School Board Lost a Gifted Superintendent in Susana Cordova

Superintendent Susana Cordova at the opening of Maxwell Elementary School.EXPAND
Superintendent Susana Cordova at the opening of Maxwell Elementary School.
Evan Semón

On November 13, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova announced her resignation. The district lost a highly gifted and effective superintendent with an extraordinary record of accomplishment. And responsibility for this loss can be attributed in large measure to school-board members who created a hostile work environment. You simply have to watch a DPS Board of Education meeting to see the way the superintendent is interrupted, talked over, and routinely discounted by board members. In community meetings, through their political campaigns, and on social media, some board members were painfully disrespectful, undermined her leadership, and treated her in a way that was neither fair nor democratic.

Once a person has served on the DPS board, they typically believe in giving the current school board as much grace as possible. We know that regardless of the changing political views on education, serving on a school board takes an extraordinary toll on an individual, both personally and professionally. It is extremely hard to understand that from the outside. Each of us had to make tough decisions that were as hard as ones the current board is facing. To think otherwise shows you don’t understand the history of education in this city or the country.

The most important duty of a school board is hiring and evaluating a superintendent. He or she is the school board’s only employee. The role of the board is to govern and to set the direction for the school district. Duties such as oversight, strategic planning, decision-making and financial planning fall under the work of the school board in partnership with the superintendent. Managing the school district employees and operations is the role of the superintendent. Together they share collective responsibility to students, DPS staff and families.

It is absolutely the prerogative of a school board to replace a superintendent who does not share their vision for the direction of the district. If that’s the case, it is their duty to publicly articulate a new vision and direction for the district and explain their reasoning to the community, voters, teachers, students, parents and, as important, to the person they want to replace.

What is most objectionable is that the DPS board has yet to articulate a vision for the district or even a framework to guide the superintendent and her staff. Board members have been making management decisions (the role of the superintendent) and forcing the district to execute on those decisions without providing a coherent plan to educate DPS's 93,000 students.

The school board’s recent performance evaluation was especially painful. Its low score of Susana’s performance related to equity was shocking to those of us who know that Susana has put diversity, equity and inclusion front and center every single day she worked at DPS. It was as if they were targeting the part of her work that mattered most to her: equity — the ultimate irony, because it was made by the least diverse school board Denver has seen in over ten years, with the least amount of representation from the Latino community in over twenty.

Susana is a child of Denver. She graduated from DPS, began her professional career as a DPS classroom teacher, served as a principal, led the district as chief academic officer and deputy superintendent, and then achieved her dream to become the first Latina superintendent of DPS. For a board that espouses community-led leadership, it is disappointing that they pushed a home-grown graduate and lifelong resident of Denver to leave the district. This board ran on a slogan of “community-driven and expertly-led,” and they forced out someone who is both.

The board should have found a way to resolve policy disagreements with Susana, and provide the appropriate direction and performance metrics, so that her deep experience with our kids, families and teachers could be deployed for our collective success. The lack of respect for a superintendent who is one of the strongest, most qualified people ever to serve in this role is disheartening.

It is important to ask if Susana was treated differently and unfairly because she is a woman of color. We believe she was. As women and former school board members, we recognize that Susana was not treated the same as her white male predecessor. The teacher’s union which endorsed a majority of the current school board members has gone on strike only twice in the last 25 years, both times against superintendents who were women of color. The union did not engage in negotiations with Tom Boasberg and waited until Susana was announced as superintendent. Within two weeks of her tenure, they called for a strike, which she managed and resolved with incredible diplomacy and thoughtfulness.

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We feel a duty to bring attention to what has happened to Susana. To be silent would make us complicit in her treatment. And the board’s stated surprise at her decision to respond to a recruitment opportunity illustrates a failure to appreciate another key responsibility: to understand the importance of stability and of retaining outstanding talent for the school district. Even though some members had been publicly calling for her ouster since before they were elected, they did not even bother to have a succession plan in place.

Finally, we want Superintendent Cordova to know we deeply respect and value her service to the educators and children of this city. We want her to know Denver will always be her home, and she will always be part of the history and promise of Denver Public Schools. Thank you, Susana.

Dr. Fernie Baca (1978-1979)
Dr. Sharon Bailey (1989-1995)
Carole McCotter (1991-1997)
Elaine Gantz Berman (1997-2005)
Rev. Lucia Guzman (1999-2007)
Theresa Pena (2003-2011)
Jill Conrad (2005-2009)
Andrea Merida (2009-2013)
Mary Seawell (2009-2013)
Happy Haynes (2011-2019)
Anne Rowe (2011-2019)
Rosemary Rodriguez (2013-2017)
Lisa Flores (2015-2019)
Dr. Rachele Espiritu (2016-2017)

Westword frequently publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com, where you can also comment on this piece.

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