Who Is In Charge

House Education chair John Buckner dies

Rep. John Buckner, chair of the House Education Committee, died Thursday. He was 67.

The Aurora Democrat was at the center of 2015’s key education debates, including on testing. But he missed the last couple weeks of the session because of illness. House Democratic staff said Friday he had been battling sarcoidosis, a chronic respiratory disease. In an April 28 letter announcing his medical leave, he told his colleagues, “While I am sure some of you are relieved to get a break from me, don’t think for a moment that you’ve run me off!”

Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora
Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora

Buckner had a long career in education, including as a principal, before being elected to the House in 2012. During his time in the Cherry Creek School District he worked at Laredo Middle School and Smoky Hill and Overland high schools. The gym at Overland is named for him.

He was well respected on both sides of the aisle.

During a May 20 signing ceremony for two testing bills, Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislators praised Buckner’s contributions on the issue. His wife, Janet, represented him at the event.

Tributes were posted quickly Friday on Twitter.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, tweeted that she was “deeply saddened” and called Buckner “a great statesman & voice of clarity.”

“I am saddened by the loss of Rep John Buckner. We have lost an amazing leader, educator and friend,” tweeted former House Speaker Mark Ferrandino.

Hickenlooper issued a statement saying, “John Buckner was an invariably kind man, with a gentle sense of humor that brought people closer, never pushed them away. He brought that same spirit of inclusiveness to his work as an educator and a legislator, in his mission to ensure that all Colorado children have access to the best education possible. His vision, his passion and his presence will be greatly missed.”

A native of Indianapolis, Buckner had lived in Colorado since 1975. He is survived by his widow, three children and three grandchildren. Details about a memorial service are pending. His seat will be filled later by a Democratic Party vacancy committee.

future of SCS

Dorsey Hopson leaving Shelby County Schools, sources say

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

Sources report that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson will resign after five years of leading Shelby County Schools.

Rumors of Hopson’s departure have been flying for months and he said as recently as early October he had no intention of leaving, saying he was “excited about our momentum.” Three sources told Chalkbeat Monday night that they had heard from district administrators that Hopson will make an announcement on Tuesday detailing his transition from the helm.

The Commercial Appeal also reported Monday night that Hopson will likely resign.

Check back with Chalkbeat on Tuesday for updates.

Hopson took charge of Shelby County Schools in 2013 as the first superintendent after the former city district merged with the suburban school system. An attorney, he previously worked as associate general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools and later as general counsel for the Clayton County School System in Georgia. In 2008, he became general counsel of Memphis City Schools.

Hopson has overseen a tumultuous time for the district. In 2013, the city’s school district folded into the county system, a complicated logistical feat that still reverberates today. The following year, six suburban towns split off to create their own districts with about 34,000 students. At the same time, the state-run Achievement School District grew as it took over district schools that had chronic low performance on state tests. Nearly two dozen district schools closed during that time as Hopson and his staff rushed to fill budget deficits left in the wake of all the changes and reductions in student enrollment.

Despite the strenuous circumstances, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state’s district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from six years ago. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban district leaders.

In recent years, the Shelby County Schools board has rated Hopson as satisfactory, though not exemplary, and extended his contract last year to 2020 with a $16,000 raise. Next week, the board is scheduled to present its most recent evaluation of his performance as the panel seeks to tweak how it rates the district’s leader.

Hopson was one of two superintendents consulted by Gov.-elect Bill Lee while on the campaign trail, and Hopson publicly expressed his support of the Republican from Williamson County before Lee won the election. Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson told Chalkbeat before the election that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half. Sources did not confirm Hopson’s next steps.

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report. 

Super Search

Denver superintendent search nearing end with one local name getting support — and calls for multiple finalists

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the search for Denver’s next school superintendent approaches a key juncture, support is mounting in some quarters for an internal candidate who many believe is likely a front-runner: Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

At the same time, parents and other residents are calling on the board to name more than one finalist next week — preferably, three — and to give the community an opportunity to vet them. The chance for parents to provide feedback is especially important, they said, in a district with a poor reputation for transparency and what one mother called a “paternalistic pattern.”

“If we are only given one finalist, we will feel that the decision has already been made behind closed doors,” said another mother, Angela Tzul, who lives in the far northeast Montbello neighborhood, where tensions with the district are particularly high.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district and one known nationally for cultivating a “portfolio” of different school types, including independently run charter schools, and encouraging families to choose among them. The district serves nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black and come from low-income families.

This is the first time in 10 years the district has had to choose a new superintendent. Longtime leader Tom Boasberg, who was responsible for many of the reforms, stepped down last month. The school board is expected to name finalists next Monday and make a hire by Dec. 10.

The board has kept mum about how many finalists it is choosing. When member Lisa Flores gave a public update on the search last week, she was careful to say “finalist/finalists.”

She did, however, provide a window into the search by revealing that the board interviewed seven candidates. They included two superintendents, two deputy superintendents, one state superintendent, and two non-traditional candidates, Flores said.

Any national search would likely extend to leaders of urban school districts with similar philosophies and student populations, such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and San Antonio. Here in Colorado, the administration of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is coming to an end in early January, and many top state administrators are likely looking for new jobs.

Cordova has said she’s interested in leading the district. She grew up in a Mexican-American family in Denver, graduated from high school here, returned after college to teach in the district, and worked her way up to principal, administrator, and now deputy superintendent. She served as acting superintendent for six months in 2016 while Boasberg was on sabbatical.

Thirty-five district principals, assistant principals, and program directors wrote a letter to school board members last week, urging them to choose Cordova. The school leaders called her “a hometown and homegrown exemplar” who has made the city proud and who “understands the nuances and complexities of our unique organization.”

“Her presence is calm and warm, yet urgent and motivating,” the letter says. “She understands the political climate of public education and is a fierce advocate for every child in Denver.”

Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, an elementary school in west Denver, was one of the school leaders who signed the letter.

“While we don’t know all the people (in the) running, we just wanted to voice our support for her to take the helm,” he wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.

Throughout August, September, and early October, the school board collected feedback from more than 4,500 people about the characteristics the next superintendent should have. In many ways, Cordova fits the bill. She is a person of color with both teaching and administrative experience, and a deep knowledge about the challenges facing Denver’s public schools.

She also has experience tackling those challenges, including the pervasive and persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families.

But her long track record is precisely why some people who are disillusioned with the district don’t want to see her promoted. They see the district’s failure to significantly close those gaps — or to hire more teachers of color, for instance — as her failures, too.

“Susana Cordova, I know you’re in here,” Montbello football coach Gabe Lindsay said at last week’s school board meeting during public comment. “We think you are going to be the next superintendent of DPS, which is concerning because Ms. Cordova does not have a track record of closing achievement gaps. She has the track record that this previous administration has.”

He cited a statistic that while 72 percent of white students were reading and writing on grade level last year, as determined by the state literacy test, just 28 percent of black students were.

If Cordova is selected, Lindsay said she needs to “come to the table with a plan to fix this district’s mindset that it is OK to leave students behind.”

Parents of students who attend charter schools have repeatedly said they’d like the next superintendent to be someone who values school choice — that is, making it easy for students to choose to attend a school that is not their assigned boundary school, such as a charter.

Other parents have railed against charter schools for draining students and money from traditional district-run schools. The teachers union has been critical, too, even trying to negotiate a moratorium on the publicly funded yet privately run schools into its latest contract.

Cordova’s entire teaching and administrative experience has been in district-run schools, but she hasn’t given any indication that she’d get rid of charter schools or the ability for families to use a single application to apply to any district-run or charter school.

“I’ve got kids in the district as well,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “Frequently, as I’m talking with friends who are parents or people in the neighborhood, they say, ‘It’s so much harder now. It was so much easier when you just went [to the school down the street].’ But the upsides are so much higher than any of the downsides, particularly when you get into the right fit for your kid.”

The school board is planning opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to meet the finalist or finalists and provide their input, though not many details have been announced besides the dates: Dec. 4 and 5. That’s less than week before the board is set to make its final decision.