Denver Board of Education candidates scoff at the raft of conflict-of-interest allegations that have marked the race, but the allegations may yet gain traction given the vast sums and complex financial arrangements the board is trusted to oversee.
There are 90,000 students in the Denver public education system. The budget this year is $811 million.
Board members will decide how to prioritize spending in the coming years, whether to push forward on the reform agenda the majority has backed for years and that has drawn the attention of education wonks around the nation, or to retrench and focus instead on the kinds of less sexy, nuts-and-bolts work proponents say will lift up existing neighborhood schools.
The reform movement has meant big money for Denver, from the federal government and from national nonprofits.
The board has helped bolster school-choice enrollment, populating the district with charter and innovation schools, imposed teacher evaluations tied to student performance and shuttered schools that fail to meet standard metrics.
Some of the board candidates accused of conflicts helm nonprofits that have secured grant money and otherwise benefitted from the reform movement. They are Barbara O’Brien, Landri Taylor and Michael Johnson.
O’Brien and Taylor both head up organizations with Denver Public Schools contracts. Johnson has served as outside bond counsel for the district for 15 years.
O’Brien and Johnson have accused their opponents, Mike Kiley and Meg Schomp, of similar conflicts. O’Brien says Kiley works at a software company that does business with the district. Johnson points out that Schomp’s husband has enjoyed a lucrative run as a member of a law firm that represented the district and has now taken over as bond counsel.
The board code of ethics states that members should not hold an interest in a business that might benefit directly from official action taken by the board.
“This whole thing is really about neighborhood schools, about local control instead of national influence,” said Kristen Tourangeau, a DPS parent, board member of the Denver Alliance for Public Education, and co-chair of DPS’s District School Improvement and Accountability Council. “For me, those are the candidates I’m interested in voting for — ones who are very interested in working for neighborhood schools, so you can walk out your door to a good local school that is supported by the community.”
[pullquote]”We completely severed our ties. There’s no remaining financial relationship. No relationship of any kind — and that was not an easy thing to do.”[/pullquote]
Tourangeau naturally questions whether board members can vote critically on policies from which they have benefited and helped craft?
“I heard someone say today at the forum that Michael Bennet thought kids were products,” Tourangeau said. Now a U.S. senator, Bennet was superintendent of the School Board in 2005 and the harbinger of reform change for Denver’s schools. “You can’t put a price on developing a sense of community and encouraging neighborhood schools. I don’t think [kids] can be treated like commodities.”
O’Brien and Get Smart Schools
Barbara O’Brien is one of three candidates running for the at-large seat on the board. She has been the President of Get Smart Schools for less than a year. In 2011, Get Smart and DPS entered into an annual contract to train school principals. The contract was renewed in 2012 and again in 2013.
According to its contract, the Get Smart School fellowship “develops principals as they work towards creating and leading new schools through the DPS Call for Quality Schools process or to gain innovation status for their school.” The Fellowship is funded with a portion of the $2.5 million granted to DPS from the Wallace Foundation. Between 2011 and the current school year, Get Smart Schools has received $350,000 from DPS, which allocates the funds from the Wallace Grant.
“This a nonprofit that I’m very proud being a part of,” O’Brien told the Colorado Independent. “Our principals are outperforming the district average in low-income neighborhoods. I’m committed to making sure that what we’ve learned from this we apply to other principal training programs that work for DPS, to make sure that we’re all using best practices.”
O’Brien says there is no conflict of interest. Being president of Get Smart School is “real world experience” that has contributed to her education philosophy.
She said she checked with the General Counsel at DPS about any potential conflict. Counsel told her she may have to recuse herself in approximately 1 percent of votes — an occurrence so rare she claims it doesn’t amount to a conflict. The General Counsel represents the District and the Board of Education.
In situations where O’Brien would have to recuse herself, the board would be left with six voting members. The at-large seat would remain unrepresented in the vote. The ideologically divided board has often split four votes to three. Without the at-large seat, there would be no deciding vote.
“I’m going to renegotiate this grant, because it runs through DPS to Get Smart, and then [Get Smart] resends it all out to their principals in training so they get stipends,” O’Brien said.
According to the 2012 contract, Get Smart Schools budgeted a 6 percent administrative fee for its fiscal sponsor, the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center.
“It will be very easy to renegotiate it so that it stays in DPS and goes straight to the principals in training. It doesn’t even need to go through us, we don’t get a penny. I’ll renegotiate that, no matter what happens in this election.”
For the first year at least, the private grant money delivered to Get Smart Schools was used for the development and implementation of the program. Get Smart worked closely with DPS to identify the standards and criteria of the fellowship. The money since has been budgeted directly for living stipends for principals in the program.
O’Brien is quick to turn any conflict of interest charges onto her primary opponent, Mike Kiley.
“I guess the question for Mr. Kiley is — you know, he actually has a serious conflict of interest that he has not divulged. It turns out that his company has many contracts with DPS as a vendor,” O’Brien said.
Kiley is an employee and program manager at the software company Kronos Incorporated. His division of Kronos works exclusively with hospitals, he told the Independent. The District runs some Kronos software and is one of thousands of the company’s clients.
Taylor and the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver
Landri Taylor is running against Roger Kilgore for the District 4 seat.
In June, a DPS mother cashed a $17,000 check mistakenly sent to her from the District. The check was supposed to be sent to the Urban League of Denver.
The Urban League has a multi-year contract with DPS. Taylor joined the Urban League after it had been awarded the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. The 2012-2013 school year was the first year of the five-year grant.
The Urban League received $140,000 from the National Urban League Incentives to Excel and Succeed Center at Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello. The 21st Century grant is a statewide competitive grant to establish community centers that provide tutoring and other academic development resources.
“In essence there is no conflict,” Taylor told the Independent. “The Urban League simply serves as the nonprofit fiscal agent for providing the grant.”
“In essence”? “Simply serves as the nonprofit fiscal agent for providing the grant”? That’s exactly the kind of bureaucratic language that litters the board races. It sounds like dodging and it turns off voters. It’s hard to dig into.
The contract for the first year 21st Century grant included a “Scope of Work” attachment. The attachment describes, on a year-long timeline, the “Deliverables” and the “Cost” required for the Urban League’s “Independent Contract Agreement.” The “Deliverables” include goals like establishing a CDE data-tracking system and implementing grant programs and workshops.
“The funds are for a third-party contractor,” Taylor said.
The third party contractor is CER Associates, under the leadership of Charles Robertson. In addition to running the National Urban League Incentives program, Taylor said Robertson is in charge of the after-school programs in the Greater Northeast.
Robertson and Taylor have been good friends for more than two decades.
“Just to be clear about Mr. Charles Robertson, Mr. Charles Robertson has been my best friend for 22 years.” Taylor said he and Robertson have a history running nonprofits together.
“We understood how to set up an arrangement so as not to cause any misuse of funds for the programs,” Taylor said. “The Urban League invoices DPS for these programs. The money comes in, we put that grant money in a restricted bank account and write a check from the restricted bank account to the CER Associates for the programs they do.”
Robertson has a history working in Denver’s local government. He is the former Deputy Director of Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department under Mayor Webb. Following a lengthy criminal investigation, Robertson plead guilty to embezzlement of public property in 2001.
At an October 10 debate, Taylor told Kilgore he would be willing to transfer the fiscal sponsorship away from the Urban League. Because Robertson’s wife, Angela Robertson, is the principal of P.U.S.H Academy, and therefore employed by DPS, it’s unclear whether or not Robertson’s CER Associates would be able to contract directly with the DPS without breaking the contract’s Conflict of Interest clause.
“What he’s been saying is that he’s just a fiscal agent,” Kilgore said. “Taking him at his word, there are probably another zillion entities that could be a fiscal agent.”
Kilgore said if that if Taylor would transfer the contract, his concern about the issue would be resolved.
“I have no hesitation, no hesitation,” Taylor told the Independent. “We don’t have to be the fiscal agent; we are the fiscal agent. We get no money from it. If the funder from the grant says that we can transfer it to another entity to provide the same services, without an interruption to those services out there, I’m all in.”
Michael Johnson and Meg Schomp
Michael Johnson has gained support of the reform movement. He says he values analyzing data in order to “do what works.”
Schomp is the “neighborhood school” candidate. She likes school choice, but she thinks Denver should slow down on providing choice in order to evaluate the real impact of charter schools and prioritize work to create strong neighborhood schools as the best first choice for parents.
Johnson and Schomp have children attending the Denver School of the Arts. They have both been active on the board for DSA’s Friend Foundation. Johnson served for 15 years as DPS’s outside legal counsel working on bond issues with his firm Kutak Rock. He resigned from the position in May. Schomp’s husband’s firm, Sherman & Howard, has been contracted to be the district’s new bond counsel. Schomp’s husband is a full equity partner and an intellectual property lawyer at the firm.
“When I became a candidate in May, I went through a whole process of severing all of our ties with Denver Public Schools,” Johnson said. “We completely severed our ties. There’s no remaining financial relationship. No relationship of any kind — and that was not an easy thing to do.”
Not an easy thing to do because the DPS was a large and profitable client. Documents obtained by the Independent show that DPS paid Kutak Rock more than $3.8 million since 1999. Johnson’s hourly rate, in a 2008 contract, was $410 an hour.
He says focus on his past relationship with DPS and accusations that he may have a conflict of interest in the race “infuriate” him.
“This is a side issue, it has nothing to do with what we’re trying to do for Denver kids,” Johnson said. “I frankly believe the reason Meg’s had to bring it up is because she’s wrong on the issues that matter to voters.”
Johnson contends that Schomp “at least technically” has the same conflict of interest that he had during his 15 years as DPS’s bond counsel, because Sherman & Howard served as DPS’s disclosure counsel during that time. Now that Sherman & Howard is DPS’s bond counsel, Johnson argues Schomp has a direct conflict of interest.
“My husband put an ethical firewall around himself — a virtual firewall — when I decided to run,” Schomp said. She explains that her husband can not view any DPS contracts with his firm.
“Neither my husband nor I have received any money from Denver Public Schools,” Schomp said. “He’s an equity partner, but he doesn’t bill DPS. If anything, I’ve contributed hours and hours of my own resources back into my children’s schools.”
Schomp and her husband sought legal counsel on whether there were any conflicts of interest. They said they were advised that there was no conflict.
Schomp also notes that while Johnson may have severed financial ties with DPS, he petitioned the board and the principal at DSA for endorsements. She says she thought asking for such a petition would divide the community.
“To me those are conflicts of interest, and those are essentials in someone’s character we should be looking at.”