In November of last year, Denver voters passed a $466 million bond measure to build new schools, to correct a host of building code violations and to eliminate the widely despised open classroom layouts in schools throughout the district.
In the months leading up to the vote, a small but vocal opposition arose, criticizing its content and demanding increased oversight. Before approving the bond ballot measure, Denver’s board of education added a mandate for an oversight committee to monitor the spending of bond money and guide the district’s projects.
A year later, several vocal critics of the bond are now running for school board seats, and the bond and its oversight linger as a divisive issue for candidates. Although there is little new school board members could do to change the current bond process, it has provided a rallying point for demands for more accountability for district administration and community involvement in decision-making.
Critics of the bond argue that the money is not being given to the neediest schools and that its disbursement is not closely tracked. Many of the complaints center on what critics feel is an oversight process that lacks teeth. They point to the 15-member committee that oversees the bond as a rubber stamp for the district’s spending plans.
“It’s not an independent third-party,” said Michael Kiley, a candidate in the Denver at-large school board race. “What they have was a committee of people handpicked by the superintendent and okayed by the board majority.”
The controversy around the bond stands in contrast to the general support garnered by the $49 million mill levy, which was approved at the same time and which funds arts, music, tutoring and enrichment programs.
Former Lt. Gov Barbara O’Brien, who is running against Kiley for the at-large seat, suggested the disagreement over the bond may be rooted in a fundamental disagreement over the district’s future path. In addition to overhauls of aging buildings, the bond funds the construction of new schools and school additions that provide space for the district’s rapidly growing student population.
“The mill was really tied to things a lot of people support, like early childhood education,” said O’Brien, who supported both measures. “The bond is really at the crux of what [Denver Public Schools] will look like going forward, with some neighborhood schools and some options for parents.”
How the committee functions (or doesn’t)
The committee at the center of the controversy is composed of nine superintendent-selected members and seven who were selected by the school board.
Roger Kilgore, a school board candidate in District 4, is among those who were appointed. He says that the committee’s irregular meeting schedule has prevented them from providing real oversight.
“We meet so infrequently that by the time that we go through some information the district would like to provide to us, there isn’t time to dig deeper into things the committee could be doing,” said Kilgore. He also says members don’t have sufficient say over the agenda.
The constraints and dynamics of the bond oversight committee have proved frustrating for all parties. Meetings of the committee regularly feature packed agendas that limit time for questions and public comment.
“We’ve never gotten through an entire agenda,” committee co-chair Kendra Black announced in frustration at the beginning of a recent meeting. Despite her efforts, they did not break that streak during the meeting, which included discussion of the bond’s finances, the summer’s major projects and of the district’s efforts to include more minority and women-owned businesses in bidding for projects.
One committee member, Luchia Brown, said that the rushed schedule means that the committee can’t get out ahead of district decisions so that they could play a meaningful role in guiding them.
“I feel like we’re chasing what’s been done rather than providing real oversight,” said Brown. She requested that an overview of projects for the upcoming year be added to the next meeting’s agenda.
Jeannie Kaplan, a current Denver school board and the board’s secretary to the committee, says that in order to avoid being a rubberstamp for the district, committee members must have the opportunity to ask questions.
“I think they really have a chance to be a real oversight committee,” said Kaplan. “I think they have to have a chance to ask the hard questions.”
Politics at play
Complaints about lax oversight are also closely tied to broader suspicions held by many critics of the district’s administration that officials have kept the public in the dark about many of their financial decisions.
Last year’s purchase of a building at 1860 Lincoln St. for Emily Griffith Technical College and district administrative offices has proved to be a lightning rod for these kinds of arguments. The decision, which the Denver school board approved in December 2012, attracted criticism for a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the district and for diverting funds intended for schools to the district’s administrative needs.
Kilgore, who has made the issue part of his campaign platform, raised it once again at Friday’s meeting. Kilgore believes the district has not been transparent about finances surrounding that purchase, claiming that there were savings from the purchase that were not disclosed.
“I think the administration should acknowledge the savings and involve the bond oversight committee in decision,” said Kilgore.
David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer who was present at the meeting, disagreed, saying there were not immediate savings, but that the district will see savings in the future with the sale of buildings freed up by the purchase.
O’Brien argues that the introduction of wider political conflicts into the oversight committee is impeding its work and alienating citizens who observe the process.
“It’s bringing out the loud voices of a small group of people,” she said. “The city is sick of this. They don’t want this kind of arguing and politicizing, they wand the district to solve some problems.”
Critiques of the oversight committee ultimately circle back to disagreements about the city’s bond and the process leading up to it.
Kiley, who has criticized the oversight process, opposed the bond in 2012.
“It was the first tax increase that I’ve ever voted against,” said Kiley. “I’m not going to be a rubber-stamp for anyone.”
Meg Schomp, who also stated it was the first tax increase she had opposed, said that the bond came out of a failed community engagement process that she could not support. Now, Schomp claims, her worst fears about the bond are being fulfilled.
“Time after time, the things you feared about this bond are going through,” Schomp said. “Bond money is being used on things that weren’t even on the original bond.”
Kilgore did vote for the bond last year, unlike other candidates who are running on platforms that oppose the current administration.
“I thought the bond was imperfect,” says Kilgore. “I supported about 80 percent.”
O’Brien says that the kind of issues critics are highlighting in the bond are pretty typical of any government bond process.
“For all the state bonding things that I’ve seen, that’s pretty typical,” said O’Brien, Kiley’s opponent. “There’s always an emergency fund, et cetera.”
She said it’s also hard to predict exactly how money will be spent beforehand and that changes are always made after the fact.
“For people who want to politicize things, it’s an easy target,” said O’Brien.