05/20/2010 11:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tom Boasberg's Bubble Should Be About to Burst

Today Nancy Mitchell of Ed News Colorado reports that three principals in Denver Public Schools have obtained legal counsel to evaluate what DPS is legally obligated to deliver to their schools under the School Innovations Act of 2008. (Mitchell's story can be read here.)

DPS had a heavy hand in developing this legislation. Yet, three principals, one of whom was the crown jewel of DPS' principal pool until he quit earlier this month, have to seek legal counsel to understand what DPS should be doing according to the act? Something is very wrong here.

Based on the act --

  • Principals are supposed to have control over their school's budget.
  • Principals are supposed to have control over staffing and the flexibility to hire their own specialists.
  • All staff members at the schools are to be on annual contracts and all new hires are exempt from state law governing teacher dismissal.

Pretty clear, right? I've read the legislation, and I found these facts to be clear.

Honestly, I bet a man as smart as Rob Stein, the soon-to-be former principal at Manual High School, thought they were clear, too. The problem is Mr. Stein's opinion doesn't have legal weight. So Stein and the principals at Cole Arts and Sciences Academy and Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, formerly known as Montclair Elementary, went seeking some legal weight to their argument.

The principals got that weight: DPS isn't delivering on its end of the innovation bargain.

Is anyone surprised? Apparently DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg is. His response to questions about the legal opinion was, "We fully support the innovation schools, we're working with them very closely and I'll just end it at that," Boasberg said. He then added, "I'll say there are absolutely no legal issues in question."

Mr. Boasberg does not deal well with reality, unless it is a reality of his own spinning. The spin here is provided by Van Schoales, who is currently responsible for the Democrats for Education Reform's new non-profit organization (aka Education Reform the Van Schoales Way -- Lots of Talk and Little Progress). Schoales writes,

While I know Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet were involved in helping to create the Innovation Schools Act (as was I), I never had the sense DPS leadership wanted legislation allowing schools to choose to manage their own operations, or being free to purchase (or not) the district's professional development, curriculum, custodial or security services, etc. (You can read the rest of Shoals remarks here.)

So according to Schoales, no one ever thought the Innovations Act would be used to create innovative schools. Principals would never make use of the innovations legally at their disposal to transform troubled schools. The Colorado Department of Education has been approving innovation status for schools because it does not believe any of the schools will take advantage of the actual legislation, just the parts that Bennet, Boasberg, and Shoales wanted to be used, right?

In the Denver Post on April 14th 2009, Dwight Jones wrote, "Innovation is more than just a good idea, it's about putting that good idea into practice. The Colorado Department of Education is presently pursuing a wide variety of innovative education models, including new approaches to teacher preparation, leadership development, school choice and the way in which education is funded."

Dwight Jones is Colorado's Commissioner of Education. Clearly he thought the School Innovations Act of 2008 would be used to its fullest extent.

Boasberg's biography on the Denver Leadership Summit website says Boasberg "...led efforts to implement transparent student-based budgeting to allow school leaders greater flexibility over their school budgets and to significantly increase pay for teachers and principals who demonstrate growth in student achievement or work in high-poverty schools."

That sounds like what the School Innovations Act was supposed to do. It also sounds like what Boasberg and Bennet were supposed to do, but they have failed woefully.

DPS has no plan for success. It just jumps from one thing to the next based on the philosophy it is better to look busy than to actually get things done. Nowhere is this clearer than DPS' supposed education reform efforts, all of which are based on getting rid of incompetent teachers while keeping incompetent administrators.

I will admit I am not the biggest fan of innovation schools. I am accused of not liking them because of the anti-union flavor of the legislation. I admit that is a small part of the issue for me. What has really bothered me, however, is that DPS, and most school districts I suspect, have no plan for how to implement innovation schools. Schoales' statements and Boasberg's inaction make this very clear.

When the lawyers start telling you that your business is not meeting the intent of the law, and your only response is "I'll say there are absolutely no legal issues in question," you have big problems. It is easy to live your life in a bubble, and Boasberg has that lifestyle down to an art form, but you better be ready should the bubble burst.

When DPS' principals and parents start getting legal opinions, the pins are starting to fly. If it comes to a lawsuit because DPS is not meeting its obligations under statute, it won't be Boasberg's name mentioned at the top of the filing.

It will be the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

This fact is something that governing body should think long and hard about. Ultimately it will come down to which bubble the school board wants to burst, Boasberg's or its own.