11/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tough Questions, No Answers

Questions sparked by three EdNews Colorado stories last week are rattling around in my head today. I don't have any answers at the moment. Perhaps some of you do. If so, please send them my way.

The sad and bewildering tale of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network raises the first questions. As reported in thorough and compelling fashion by Nancy Mitchell, the network, which started as a single Pueblo school in 2000, has gone from a feel-good story about high-poverty schools beating the odds to a tangled tale with hints of cronyism and blatant self-interest spiced with paranoia.

The bizarre actions of the Chavez board last week brings to the surface a larger question about charter school governing boards. While I'm a proponent of charters, and their ability to operate independently of a school district, I wonder whether some sort of checks and balances regarding board composition would be wise.

At present, individuals or organizations vying to start charters assemble a board. Usually, the board is put in place to support the application, and then, with some tweaks, becomes the governing board once the charter is approved.

This works well, in theory at least, because those selected presumably have the best interests of the school and its students at heart.

But what happens when a board is packed with cronies, and the interests of board members or the school's leader takes precedence over the good of the school and its children?

Should the body that authorizes a charter -- be it the school district or the Charter School Institute, get a seat or two on the board? Not to tip the balance, but to place a differing perspective on the board? I can hear my friends over the Colorado League of Charter Schools howling at this question. I'm eager to hear their response.

The second question on my mind resulted from the first forum for candidates running for Denver school board. It was held last week in northeast Denver. Five candidates attended; two were no-shows. Answers to questions ranged from thoughtful to superficial. Distinctions between serious and not-so-serious candidates became clear.

But those distinctions might not matter much in the end, because two circumstances converge to make this election more unpredictable than most. The first is that this is the "off-est" of off-year elections. No other offices are up for election, and no ballot measures of any consequence. So, on Denver's ballot at least, it's school board races and almost nothing else.

As a result, voter turnout will likely be miniscule. And to complicate matters, it's a mail-only election. No polling places. No voting booths. Just you and your ballot, which should arrive with all the bills and junk mail around Oct. 15.

This is an important election, with the future of Denver Public Schools hanging in the balance. Yet, odds are, few people will cast a ballot. And traditional get-out-the-vote efforts may not work in an election where the only option is to vote by mail.

Is this the best way to decide who gets on the Denver school board? Would it be better to hold school board elections only during higher-turnout cycles? Is mail-only a wise course?

And, of course, the big, underlying question: Should school boards be elected at all? Or is an appointed board preferable?

Finally, Julie Poppen's fascinating story about overcrowding at Metropolitan State College of Denver raised a host of questions. While the concept of an open admissions four-year college is noble, does it make sense in the current environment? If not, how does the school decide who gets in? Does even raising such questions undermine Metro State's mission?

And this, of course, pushes a question back to the K-12 system: How is it that you produce so many high school graduates who aren't ready to do freshman-level work at Metro, or anywhere else?

Answers, anyone?