01/31/2011 06:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Grassroots vs. Arne Duncan on School Reform, Big Development in Denver

Across our Nation, parents and educators are fighting against top down plans implemented by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, such as 'Race to the Top,' and sudden school closings and teacher layoffs.

Now, a line in the sand is being drawn on this issue in Denver, Colorado, as a recall effort has been mounted against School Board Member Nate Easley - specifically over his conflict of interest in employment and neglecting to listen and meet with concerned parents of Northeast Denver.

This recall will pit parents who are grassroots organizers against the 'reforms' that close schools from the administration and its Secretary of Education.

This recall does not just threaten one Denver Public School Board member, but goes much higher up - even the President has been brought in for political cover. (No one from the school he mentions was in the audience for the SOTU - every other honoree was in attendance, almost like a last minute addition).

The postive press Bennet and Boasberg got from that SOTU shout-out may have looked good from afar, but it could not hide the fact that in the same week, the ballots were certified to recall Nate Easley, a clear sign that Denver parents are not happy with the way the Schools are being run.

First, why recall Nate Easley? At the time Nate Easley was running for the school board, the board was a 4-3 majority in favor of Superintendent Boasberg's continued plans for shutting down schools, just as his predecessor, (Senator) Michael Bennet had done with Manual High School. Parents had heard that Boasberg was now going to bring a vote to shut down Montbello High School.

Public outcry over this was heated, with parents crying out 'NO' to the idea, as you can see here.

Nate Easley failed to keep his campaign pledge to meet and listen to the parents, specifically on the potential Montbello closure. (hattip to Christopher Scott)

Easley missed multiple meetings with groups of community members, which is never a good policy for an elected official. Community members also point out that Easley has failed to notice meetings where school board members have discussed public business and made policy decisions, which has just fueled the fire of distrust between Easley and those he represents. Parents cite a general lack of accountability with Easley, who, they say, does not respond to emails or phone calls.

Far NE Denver resident Donna Moore, told me, "That's what Easley was elected to do - meet with us and represent us on the school board. He can't be bothered to do that, so he's got to go."

It also appears that Easley has a major conflict of interest with his duty as a School Board Member.

Easley works as the Deputy Director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, an organization intimately associated with the Denver school system. ...superintendent Tom Boasberg has an active leadership role on the foundation... Boasberg ...could exert tremendous professional pressure on Easley, who needs a paying job to feed his family.

On the other hand, as Board president, Easley is directly responsible for Boasberg's employment status at DPS. He oversees the preparation of Boasberg's professional evaluation. He has significant influence in Boasberg's compensation package. In theory, Boasberg should think of himself as reporting directly to Easley as long as Easley is Board of Education president.

If Easley is recalled, the board's minority will become the majority, and investigations that have been blocked for years will begin, setting off a chain of events. Consider this: In the Spring of 2008, current US Senator Michael Bennet was Superintendent Bennet. He and his assistant Tom Boasberg persuaded the Denver Public School Board to invest the School's Budget into a derivative wwap with JP Morgan.

Flash forward two years later, and Michael Bennet is now Senator Bennet, involved in the Democratic Primary with Andrew Romanoff.

Three out of seven DPS school board members are asking lots of questions about the soundness of the derivative swap, so much so that even the New York Times did an investigation into the swap.

All through the primary, the three dissenting board members -- Arturo Jimenez, Andrea Merida, and Jeanne Kaplan -- were brushed aside by the majority board members and by Superintendent Boasberg. Boasberg referred to their inquiry as being 'politically motivated' by supporters of Bennet's primary opponent.

The facts do not support this. Official emails from board member Jeanne Kaplan show she had been asking questions of Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg as far back as the fall of 2008, before Obama was elected or Ken Salazar was picked to be Secretary of the Interior and before Bennet became a Senator.

The official email trail can be found here at Square State.
For example:

From: (Jeanne Kaplan)

Sent: Wednesday, December 03, 2008 11:11 AM
To: Boasberg, Tom; Pena, Theresa's External;
Cc: Bennet, Michael
Subject: Re: DPSRS-PERA merger memo

Tom - I can't open the attachment, but is it still relevant? What is happening with the merger, since the papers indicates it is off? Also, can we get an update on our bond situation, please? Have we lost a lot of money? If so, how much? Are there ways to stop the bleeding? When will programs/salaries/ etc. be affected?



-----Original Message-----
From: Boasberg, Tom
To: Jeannie Kaplan-
Cc: Pena, Theresa's Bennet, Michael
Sent: Thu, 4 Dec 2008 12:04 pm
Subject: RE: DPSRS-PERA merger memo

Thanks. think the attachment is of limited relevance at this point. I think that we are going to try to spend some time at our board meeting this month talking about all these topics so we will have a chance to discuss in some detail .



You can see in this exchange that Kaplan uses the term 'bleeding' in reference to the losses caused by the derivative swap, long before Obama was inaugurated or Bennet was picked as a Senator, and a year and a half before he was involved in a primary race. Clearly this was without political motivation. As Bennet's spokesperson, Boasberg politely dismissed inquiries at first, but later Boasberg dismissed budget accounting requests as politically motivated through the Primary, and is still blocking them today.

The three dissenting board members have not stopped demanding information, long after Bennet won the primary and his re-election. And they have not stopped fighting against the unpopular school closures, but with little success, as they are in the minority. And the parents have stayed involved as well. They don't like these reforms on a gut level, knowing deep down something is wrong with closing a school and then having charter schools re-open that don't take non-English speakers or special needs students, and that require you to get in a lottery to make it into the school if you are a 'normal' student.

And those deep down suspicions are now being proven by studies on these 'reform' efforts. Teacherken has an excellent expose of how these reforms - specifically Arne Duncan's turnaround program in Chicago, have been proven to be failures - and now that 'reform' is being implemented in 'Race to the Top' nationally: "How the Billionaire Boys Club is running and ruining Education."

The parents have fought and fought and have even formed a grassroots group - DeFENCE (Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education) to fight these 'reforms,' conflicts of interests and overall lack of transparency.

This group is all volunteer and all grassroot funded, with very little money, but lots of gumption.

If their recall effort of Nate Easley is successful, then the board will flip back to a 4-3 majority for the dissenting viewpoint.

This issue will be a big decision for voters in upcoming elections. Candidates in the upcoming Denver mayoral race will have to decide where they stand on this issue. Since all the candidates are Democrats, the question is this: Will candidates listen to the local parents who vote in the mayoral race - or to those aligned with Arne Duncan?

And inquiries into the losses of the DPS derivative swap will have ongoing and potentially damaging results to certain members of the school board who have blocked inquiries, and certainly for the current Superintendent Boasberg and most likely for the former Superintendent, Senator Michael Bennet.

In a turn of events, the heavy handedness of these board members and past and present Superintendents may unravel so publicly that it will serve as a bulwark against heavy handed politicians who run roughshod over the will of the parents of students in these schools. And that may serve as a sign to parents and educators that they can successfully stand against the Secretary of Education and others forcing 'reforms' that are hurting students. If they are successful, maybe all the funding of these corporate and business gimmicks will be shelved in favor of funding something that educators and parents have been demanding for years - lower student to teacher ratio - something simple and proven to work.

Time will tell.