The difficulty of community engagement

Much hay is being made over the lack of community participation in the DPS superintendent announcement.  In my mind, this decision suffers primarily from its unfortunate timing downstream from the appointments of CO Secretary of State, and US Senator.

By far the weakest argument over exclusion is the selection of DPS superintendent. The other two are elected positions where one could argue that the will of the people is a considerable factor – in contrast, the superintendent is appointed by the Board of Education .  So the decisions that deserve the most scrutiny and any heat rest squarely at the top of the Colorado political establishment with Governor Ritter, not with the elected and unpaid BOE.  I am no DPS apologist, but when the protest march headed to 900 Grant instead of the state capitol or (governor’s residence) it was off track.

And there are other questions here.  For starters, how much engagement would be enough? Community engagement is one of those non-quantifiable items where more is pretty much always considered better.  Is there a recent political decision where community leaders would say they were overly solicited?  Where they wanted to be consulted less? Where groups convened to raise their collective voice to say:  Stop asking us already and make your decision? 

Community engagement is one of those rare criteria where one can always argue for more, more, more — and it is an impossible critique to avoid. The BOE’s superintendent decision emphasized continuity and speed over inclusion – it’s hard for me to see the calculus by which more dialogue trumps those considerations. When one argues that more openness is always better, one usually ignores that other factors get pushed out. And, as I’ve argued, this was ultimately not a choice between candidates.

As with the decision to close Manual, the emergence of a group stirred to public protest by the fulcrum of a specific BOE decision merits serious questions about where the outrage has been quietly napping.  The chronic underachievement of Latino students in DPS cited as a partial basis for the protest is ongoing, and has persisted for generations. Bennet’s administration – from the very beginning – did as much (or more) than anyone to call attention to the achievement gap and the problems encountered by African American and Latino students in DPS.

At the finalist announcement, Boasberg called urban education “the civil rights issue of our time.”  These guys are not late to the issue of minority achievement – they have been leading it. As others have noted, groups such as Padres Unidos — who have been deeply involved with reform in DPS for some time — supported the appointment. For me, Padres (especially with North High) have walked considerable miles in the shoes of DPS.  Their outrage would have had some shoe leather behind it.

Lastly, what happened to representative government?  The basic idea of democracy (despite the fashion of ballot amendments) is that we elect our leaders, and entrust in them the ability to make decisions.  Citizens vote for the BOE, and the BOE selects a superintendent – that’s actually how it is designed to work.  The spilled tea cry has moved from No Taxation Without Representation to No Taxation Because Here Is A Small But Loud Group That Thinks It Is A Bad Idea.

To claim that this elected BOE is neglectful of issues regarding Latino children would need some stronger evidence than the continuity of an adminstration which has made closing the achievement gap one of its top priorities. Let’s hope this energy is channeled back into the schools where it is sorely needed.

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