Opinion: Denver’s board of education broke the law and violated our trust

Denver’s Board of Education met privately to discuss, develop and vote on a crucial school safety policy in clear violation of Colorado law. Video just released by the district following a judge’s orders also showed the board and school officials using the meeting to openly express contempt for the public they serve, stew about their public image, and, in the case of one board member, make shockingly insensitive and racially charged comments.

Colorado’s media has served the public well in making sure that this meeting was made public. It took a lawsuit, a judge’s orders, and then a surprisingly brave vote from the board members to bring this recorded meeting to light.

And the Denver Public School board members, Superintendent Alex Marrero and legal counsel Aaron Thompson, certainly were not shown in their best lights. The meeting makes everyone involved look conniving and political. During a crisis – especially a school shooting that left two employees seriously injured and resulted in a student’s suicide – we’d expect these school leaders to rise to the occasion. Instead, these men and women convened in secret to plot how best to quell the growing public backlash.

After listening to this meeting, we now understand the “Resign DPS” signs that have been popping up in yards across the city and in hashtags on social media. This is not a board serving the public or even taking school safety seriously. The members engaged in an egregious abdication of their responsibilities as elected officials.

The conversation made one thing clear – in the days after Austin Lyle shot two administrators at East High School, board members, and school officials were more concerned with their public perception than they were about how to make schools safe.

“Everyone has made the seven of us the enemy, including you, and that’s not fair to us,” said Auon’tai Anderson (who formerly went by Tay), appearing to include Marrero. Anderson deserves credit for asking for clarification during the meeting about how they could craft a public policy during an executive session.

“Because we are talking about suspending policy, this conversation doesn’t need to be public?” Anderson asked.

Thompson – who clearly does not understand Colorado’s open meetings law —  advised the board several times that the conversation was OK and seemed to be interested in helping the board find a way to hold a private vote on the matter.

A Colorado judge who considered the lawsuit brought by The Denver Post and other media organizations ultimately ruled that the board members did violate the law and that the video should be made public.

The ruling and the outcome should send a message to all public officials that Coloradans will not tolerate negotiating and voting on public policy in private.

To be clear, the board could have been justified in using an executive session so district officials could fully inform the board about the details of the shooting – an update that would likely include private medical information about the survivors and student privacy concerns if other students were named or involved.

A small portion of the meeting was redacted because just such private information was discussed.

But the bulk of the meeting centered on crafting a memo responding to the shooting – with the prime goal expressed by board members and Marrero being to save their own personal image during a wave of intense public criticism.

Recently appointed board member Charmaine Lindsay erroneously said “minority students” were the ones bringing guns into schools and needed a police presence as a deterrent. We’d like to remind Lindsay that white students have also perpetrated school shootings. Her words were inaccurate and hurtful.

Denver deserves a board and a superintendent who take student safety seriously and spend their time openly and honestly crafting policies and a budget that reflects the safety needs of students, teachers, principals, and staff.

For example, the board considered including language in the memo about mental health but opted not to go down that road because they couldn’t fund or deliver on those options.

The board considered including in their memo demands on the training of the police officers working in schools but decided not to do so because they worried about liability.

The board talked about how staff members should not be searching students for weapons but took no action to prevent that obviously dangerous job from falling to teachers and principals.

The board expressed sorrow about how the shooter Austin Lyle was being “painted in a horrible light” but also dithered about whether it was worth the blowback to try to humanize Lyle publicly.

“We’re going to get pushback. We’re going to get blowback. But I’m ready for it,” said board member Michelle Quattlebaum.

Those words ring hollow coming in a closed meeting from a board and a superintendent that made it clear they will spend hours behind closed doors to save face in public.

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Editorial: Wondering what Hancock did in 12 years? Look at Brighton Boulevard.

History will remember Mayor Michael Hancock for many things – his tireless service during the pandemic, the completion of Union Station on his watch, and the explosive growth of Denver International Airport.

The mayor’s real legacy, however, will be the public works projects that have taken root across every corner of this city, bringing hope, revitalization, and finally a sense of equity to all Denverites.

We cannot sugarcoat Hancock’s lapses in judgment. His flirtatious text messages with a member of his security detail from the Denver Police Department caused real harm both to the victim of his unwanted advances and also to the nationwide effort to address sexual harassment in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Denver is still struggling to balance compassionate care for unhoused individuals choosing to live in camps on public land rather than in shelters, and the often related epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses.

On Hancock’s watch, there’s been an uptick in homicides, especially teen violence, and a proliferation of property crimes.

But when we look at Hancock’s administration, over more than a decade with a transformative booming economy, on balance, we’d say the mayor did good for Denver.

No place is this more clear than along Brighton Boulevard just north of downtown where a dense urban community sprouted up from forgotten warehouses and a neglected street became a major connected thoroughfare with wide sidewalks and landscaping. Businesses flourish supplied with customers from apartment towers sprouting up like sunflowers.

This is the heart of RiNo (River North) and nowhere is Hancock’s mark more visible than this bar-filled, arts district anchored by The Mission Ballroom and ending where the much improved although not quite completed National Wester Center begins. Private investors were willing to take a risk and bet big in the area in part because of the city’s commitment to rebuilding Brighton and investing in parks, libraries, the National Western Center, and the RiNo brand.

The transformation has been more radical perhaps than even the rebirth of LoDo under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper or the revitalization of the 16th Street Mall under Mayor William McNichols.

Denver’s next mayor, Mike Johnston, who will be sworn into office Monday, should look to RINO and Brighton Boulevard and embrace the good while discarding the bad.

The good is obvious – drastically improved public infrastructure, dense housing added without displacing any residents, a mecca for new small businesses and long-established ones too. But with the addition of thousands of new housing units close to public transportation and downtown, it is disappointing how few are affordable. The city was late to overlay the area with special incentives to build affordable housing and even later to put in stricter requirements to dissuade developers from simply paying a fee to avoid building required affordable units.

In 2017 Denver voters approved the billion-dollar Elevate Denver Bond Program, which for the past six years has enabled redevelopment throughout the entirety of Denver, with an extra focus on areas historically forgotten by public officials when it came time for investment. With four more years of the bond remaining, Hancock’s legacy will continue to be built long after he leaves office. Even as we speak, bike lane infrastructure is being improved, parks are being built and epic playgrounds are getting unveiled. One of the most critical projects for the underserved Westwood neighborhood, a $37 million 40,000 square foot recreation center with a pool, must still be completed. Johnston should make it a top priority.

Hancock leaves Johnston a track record of transparency and project delivery when it comes to these general obligation bonds. Denverites historically grumble about the relentless pace, appearance, and effects of private development, but for all our angst over change, one thing Denverites can say is that Hancock delivered public projects that improved the quality of life in this city from the furthest reaches of northwest Denver with the creation of the Montbello Open Space Park.

Denver has changed dramatically in the past 12 years, both good and bad, but Mayor Michael Hancock’s three terms will be remembered as a period of rapid growth and investment with a commitment to equity across a city growing increasingly economically segregated.

Johnston would do well to continue that legacy of public investment in public projects with a focus on historically underserved neighborhoods.

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