THE BLOG

Boasberg: It's My Decision If I Get a Bonus This Year

06/07/2010 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On May 25th, CBS4 (aka Channel 4 here in Denver) investigative reporter Brian Maass ran a story about whether Colorado school district superintendents intended to take their annual bonuses this year. Superintendents interviewed by Maass have a variety of plans for addressing their bonus issues, with everything from accepting them to refusing to take any bonus in this economic climate.

As most are aware, Colorado's school districts are facing the worst economic crisis in the last 30 years. Many school districts are facing deep cuts in the classroom, including teacher layoffs, that will result in further class overcrowding and fewer student services, which will likely exacerbate the lack of academic performance.

While the superintendents' answers to Maass' questions were vaguely interesting, one response caused me to raise an eyebrow: here in Denver, Superintendent Tom Boasberg's response provides excellent insight as to why things are the way they are in Denver Public Schools.

According Maass --

The leader of the Denver Public Schools system, Tom Boasberg, was not willing to say what he planned to do about $70,000 worth of additional compensation he is due. Boasberg is owed a $50,000 bonus from last year and a $20,000 raise. But he deferred both and says he will meet with his school board in July and decide what to do about the $70,000 lump sum he's owed.

"I'm very aware of the financial challenges and my need to lead by example," Boasberg said.

"So have you not made a decision?" Maass asked Boasberg.

"No decision has been made, no," Boasberg responded.

"So it's your decision?" Maass asked.

"It is mine, but I'd like to have a discussion with the board. I think the decision needs to be what's best for DPS," Boasberg said.

In 2009, Boasberg's salary was $170,000, which The Denver Post called a bargain. With his $20,000 deferred raise, Boasberg would have made $190,000, or $260,000 with his bonus. I don't know how Jeremy Meyer and his editors felt about Boasberg's 36% bonus, but it doesn't feel like a bargain to me.

It's true, in 2009, Boasberg made less than the superintendents of Aurora, Cherry Creek, and Douglas County schools. But under the Michael Bennet/Boasberg pay for performance model, Boasberg should make less. Why? Let's look at 10th grade student CSAP scores for the answer.

2009 District Average 10th Grade CSAP Scores

(at or above proficiency)


School District Reading Writing Math
Cherry Creek 74% 58% 37%
Douglas County 81% 63% 43%
Denver Public Schools 51% 32% 15%
Aurora Public Schools does not publish its CSAP data on the CDE website. Thus, it is not included above.

Tenth grade is the last grade in which CSAPs are inflicted on Colorado's students. It is also the measurement closest to the end of any school district's "production line," if you will. If less than half of your students come out of high school able to write or do math, it is hard to say the system is successful.

Moreover, in the 2009 Boasberg-prepared Denver Plan, this failure is, well, planned. According to pages 58 and 59 of the plan, the proficiency rate for grade level cohorts will increase 3.5% in reading, writing, and math over each year. Meanwhile, the plan states the graduation rate for DPS students will increase by 5% per year to reach 82% in 2012.

Now, do the math: by 2012, if you increase the 15% by 3.5% per year, as the sentence states, just over 16% of DPS students will be proficient in math by 2012. If we assume that Boasberg's math is no better than his students' and he actually meant that the increase would be 3.5 percentage points, just over 25% of DPS students would be proficient by 2012.

Some will cry that it is unfair to compare DPS to Cherry Creek and Douglas County Schools. I would agree. However, the CSAP knows no distinction between school districts with high free-and-reduced lunch populations or who are non-native speakers and school districts with a high degree of BMW-driving students coming from homes where both parents have a master's degree.

If you are a teacher, especially at DPS, your students are expected to perform at grade level, otherwise you are labeled unsuccessful and most everything will be done to characterize you as part of the problem that needs to be gotten rid of.

If this model is being applied to teachers, then I say the same model should be applied to the superintendent. Students in Boasberg's care did worse than students in the other superintendents' districts. Further, he is planning for failure. He should receive a bonus accordingly.

If we were to apply the vaunted DPS ProComp model to his bonus --

  • Boasberg should get ~$2,500 bump in pay for working in a hard-to-serve school district.
  • Boasberg did not serve in a district with high student growth, so he would get no bonus for this component of evaluation.
  • Boasberg did not attend any professional development classes that we are aware of. Again, no bonus.
  • He does not have academic credentials allowing him to teacher in a hard-to-fill subject area. Nil here as well.

What Boasberg does have is DPS graduates ~50% for its 12th graders. Fifty percent of those students will need remedial classes upon entering higher education. The majority of DPS students will only qualify to attend Metro State, the school with the lowest admission standards in the state, and very few students who get into Metro will actually get a degree within 6 years.

These numbers have not been improving over the past 3 years. So, I'm not seeing a bonus at all.

Despite all of this, I still like Tom's chances of getting his bonus. Why? Look at the quote again:

"So it's your decision?" Maass asked.

"It is mine, but I'd like to have a discussion with the board. I think the decision needs to be what's best for DPS," Boasberg said.

It's this hubris that is, in part, making progress so slow at DPS. No accountability exists at the administrative level of the organization. This is just an example: whether or not Tom Boasberg gets a bonus is Tom Boasberg's decision.

If I were a school board member in DPS, I'd have choked on my coffee upon reading this statement. I would agree with the statement that the decision needs to be what's best for DPS. I would completely disagree with the decision being Tom Boasberg's to make.

Here is how this is supposed to work:

  • You the people are supposed to elect your school board representatives. Of course, just over 70,000 voters participate in that election every 2 years.
  • The elected representatives are then suppose to look out for the city of Denver's education needs as well as the tax revenue allocated to the Denver's schools.
  • The school board hires a superintendent to act as a chief executive of sorts who is on the hook for the daily operation of the district.
  • The school board acts the superintendent's supervisor.

It is this last part that doesn't happen at DPS.

As a whole, DPS board members are like mushrooms -- they're kept in the dark and fed ...well, you know the rest. As a board, they sit though mindless presentations during meetings that have no relevance to district governance of financial management. Certain members get more access to information than others but this access is unreliable. Some board members are so disenfranchised they can't even get a call back from human resources when a hiring process goes awry and a school principal asks for help. When asked about it, Boasberg looks blankly at the board member and says he'll look into it, but never gets back to the board member.

And that, folks, is why Tom Boasberg gets to decide on whether or not he will get a bonus. I promise he will get his $70,000. He might defer it, but in the end, he'll walk away with another $120,000 of the tax payers' money ($50k deferred last year and $70k, which may or may not be deferred, this year).

If Boasberg had the guts to follow the compensation model he claims is partially driving reform at Denver Public Schools, he would get ~$2,500 as a bonus. Given his rate of success, I'm pretty sure this is about what he deserves, if that much.

Boasberg likes to say that DPS needs to pay its administrators so the district can recruit top business talent. I agree with that. My problem is, where is that top talent? Where is the DPS Board of Education's supervision of the talent it has now?

The answers to both are anyone's guess.