2021 Election, Denver, Education, Exclusives, Local

Sharf: Denver school board members feather their own nest

You might have thought that after school board elections across the state, where citizen candidates did quite well against union-backed incumbents, or after the Virginia governor’s race, fueled in large part by parent anger, that school board members here in Colorado would have responsiveness to parents’ worries at the top of their list of priorities.

You would be wrong.

Last week, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-2 to begin paying its members a stipend, the first time in the history of DPS that members will be paid.  Up until now, the board has always been an entirely volunteer position.  The main reason given for the vote was to make it easier for minority, non-white citizens to serve on the board.

However, some comments by members and the timing of the vote call into question its propriety.  Members voted themselves this money even as other priorities remain unmet.  The main backers then promised to hold each other accountable to deal with those priorities, while just having allowed new board members to escape accountability during the election for taking public money.

The board took the action under House Bill 1055, passed this year by the legislature, which permits school boards to vote themselves a stipend of up to $150 a day.  It’s unclear why this was such a high priority, or why the sponsoring Democrats felt it necessary to grant school boards an end-run around the voters.

The new law allows members to receive the stipend for up to five days a month, for a total of $750, subject to adjustment for inflation. Only board members whose elections are certified after the adoption of the resolution would be eligible to receive the stipend.  Members who are currently on the board would not be eligible for it until they have been re-elected.  As a result, new Denver school board members Scott Esserman, Michelle Quattlebaum, and Xochitl Gaytan will be eligible for the stipend, as will returning board chair Dr. Carrie Olson, who was re-elected this year.

The timing of the measure raises some questions about its appropriateness, coming as it did some six months after the bill was signed into law.  Board member Tay Anderson said that he had put it on the Board’s agenda on August 22, but it didn’t get taken up by the board until its October 18 “Focus on Achievement” meeting, where members raised doubts that it could be acted on quickly enough to provide compensation to the new incoming board members.  There was further discussion in the November 4 working group, before the final vote was taken on November 18.

This appears to have been too late to become an issue in the election of candidate who would be eligible to receive the stipend.  I was unable to find where the board candidates had been asked what they thought of the possibility of getting paid, whether or not they would accept it, and whether they thought it would be more appropriate to wait until after the election to take it up.

The time crunch led Anderson and fellow board member Brad Laurvick to make the worst possible suggestion, from an ethical point of view, at the October 18 meeting.  They both wanted to know if it were possible for the board to vote in compensation, so the new members would be eligible, and then let the new board – including the members who would be eligible – work out the details.

Indeed, by the November 4 working session – two days after the elections – the board didn’t seem to have the votes to pass the resolution.  Barbara O’Brien and board treasurer Angela Cobián opposed the measure on cost grounds, ranging from substitute teachers and student mental health to soap dispensers.  Jennifer Bacon said that she might be able to support a stipend starting in 2024 or 2026, but not in 2022.

Bacon is also a state representative, who urged passage of HB-1055, but abstained from voting because of the conflict of interest. Olson eventually overcame whatever scruples she had in that regard.  On November 4, she had said that, as someone potentially receiving the benefit, she had talked to the board’s attorneys and believed that she had to abstain.  By November 18, she was convinced of the necessity of passing the measure as part of the “professionalization” of the board, although she demurred on whether or not she would actually apply for and accept the stipend.

The timing also puts the lie to the claim made by Laurvick on November 18 that it makes board members more accountable to voters.  That might be true in the future, but by rushing to pass the measure, after the elections, in time for new members to be eligible, it completely absolved new members of such accountability now.

Only O’Brien and Cobián stayed the course with their concerns about cost.  But Bacon overcame her earlier concerns to vote yes.

For his part, Anderson insisted that the measure was all about race.  On October 18, he said that the lack of any payment “blocks so many people of color from running for this board.”  On November 4, he objected to a board that wasn’t racially representative of the student body.  And on November 18, he said that while this was a start, it would not, “cure the majority white board that we currently have.”  A curious word, “cure.”

In Denver, at least there were some closely contested elections, so it wasn’t clear on October 18 who the new beneficiaries would be when the process started.  The same can’t be said of Sheridan, the Arapahoe County school district with a total enrollment of about 1200 students, roughly the same as three average Denver high schools combined.

That board voted at a special meeting on November 1 to claim the stipend as well, one day before the elections, with three board members running uncontested for re-election, meaning a majority of the five-member board voted to give themselves a stipend.  This in a district where over 80% of students qualify for a subsidized school lunch.

And so, we are treated to the spectacle of two school boards waiting out an election to vote themselves pay at the taxpayers’ expense.  Remember that the next time someone says parents shouldn’t be confronting those boards about their kids’ educations.

Joshua Sharf is a Denver resident and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.


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