Denver school board spent $43,000 to resolve conflict among members

Denver’s school board has spent more than $43,000 on consultants over the last year to mediate disagreements between directors, who often have clashed on how to govern Colorado’s largest district, according to expense reports reviewed by The Denver Post.

As Denver Public Schools grapples with the aftermath of the March 22 shooting at East High School, tensions between directors have flared once again. Most recently, President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán sought to censure her colleague, Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, for allegedly disclosing information discussed in a closed meeting held by the board the day after a student shot two administrators at the district’s biggest high school.

The elected school board has hired at least four consultants to conduct mediation and conflict resolution sessions over the last year, including at two retreats last summer. School boards often hold retreats to work on team building, but transactions reviewed by The Post showed directors also have worked with a therapist since August.

“Last year, it wasn’t any secret that we had our own differences of opinion,” Anderson said. “You definitely saw us retain various individuals to support us through facilitation.”

The Post reviewed expenses made by the board and individual directors between January 2022 and February 2023.

The documents, which were obtained through a public records request, showed the school board has worked with Taña Quintana-Price, a licensed psychotherapist with Mindful Therapy, since August, when she helped facilitate a retreat.

She’s also been present at school board meetings, including most recently on April 10. Additionally, Quintana-Price and at least one other mediator have met individually with pairs of board members.

Anderson said Quintana-Price has been “a very helpful presence in very trying conversations,”

The school board declined to answer most of The Post’s questions about Quintana-Price’s work with directors, including why she was hired, what services she provides, or what her role is during public meetings. Such information is “privileged,” the board said in a joint email, citing state law that makes communication between a counselor and client confidential.

“I don’t think sharing that serves the interest of students or the public,” board member Scott Esserman said in an interview.

Gaytán directed questions about the mediators to a joint board statement, which said, “Disagreements between elected officials will always occur during a deliberative democratic process. Each director on the Board of Education is passionate about facilitating positive outcomes for the students of Denver.”

Quintana-Price could not be reached for comment.

But Quintana-Price’s contract with DPS shows she was hired to facilitate conversations, hold one-on-one coaching sessions, provide leadership support and other workshops for leaders and staff, and provide “support to bridge healthy employment relationships.”

Directors who spoke to The Post said Quintana-Price’s services have been helpful for the board.

“I was hesitant at first but I found it to be very effective and very beneficial,” board member Scott Baldermann said, adding, “It’s just team-building type work that’s happening and proactive conversations.”

The district’s hiring of Quintana-Price has given directors access to therapy, Anderson said, adding that his sessions have focused more on how not to “lose” himself while advocating for children rather than on any potential conflict with his colleagues.

“It also shows we’re human,” he said. “Elected officials still have their own challenges and we have to normalize being able to… seek someone out for additional help.”

“We aren’t always going to agree”

Board members have worked with Quintana-Price weekly since August, except for two weeks during the holidays in December and January, according to invoice documents. Sessions often occurred multiple times a week.

The district has paid Quintana-Price at least $20,500, invoices showed. Under her contract, which expires May 31, the district could pay up to $33,600 for her services.

“This is an insignificant amount of the budget,” Esserman said, adding, “We aren’t always going to agree and our disagreements at this point have been dealt with in a healthy manner.”

Overall, the board has spent at least $43,481.25 on mediation and conflict resolution, including more than $15,000 for facilitators to lead two retreats last summer. The district also paid $5,000 to 12 Transformation Inc. for the Parker-based company to help develop a code of conduct for the board that is aligned with its governance model, according to expense transactions reviewed by The Post.

The money spent on mediation and conflict resolution represents a small percentage of DPS’s billion-dollar budget. The district is facing a $9 million deficit at the end of the academic year because of declining enrollment.

The school board’s budget is allocated from the district’s general operating fund, spokesman Bill Good said in an email.

In August, the board spent more than eight hours together working on their relationships with one another during a retreat. But the infighting persisted during a meeting held only three days later, leading the retreat facilitators to offer the board additional sessions to work through their disagreements.

Disputes among directors have centered on the board’s new governance model. Directors have disagreed on how the board should operate under the model, called policy governance, which dictates how members should behave and says the board should speak with “one voice.”

But the fighting also has included accusations of misogyny and racism, and twice now, there has been talk of censuring board members.

“Focusing on the matter at hand”

Disagreements over the board’s governance model have emerged in the weeks following the shooting at East.

The district has faced scrutiny for its response to gun violence as East students and parents have called for DPS to tighten security and to take other steps to prevent shootings. Some parents also are calling on the school board to resign in wake of the shooting.

Anderson said during the April 10 meeting that the governance model was creating “division” in the community because topics such as school safety are considered “operational,” meaning they are under the purview of the superintendent rather than the board and should not be discussed publicly by board members.

“Our community doesn’t care about our governance structure,” Anderson said during the meeting. He added: “I can’t continue to tell families it’s ‘operational.’”

Earlier this month, Gaytán told Chalkbeat Colorado that she would move to censure Anderson for violating board policy after the East shooting.

“It is my role as president to address board policy violations when they are brought to me,” she said during the April 10 meeting, adding, “This was not done lightly.”

On March 27, Anderson alleged during a news conference that Marrero had told the board that, if directors didn’t act, Mayor Michael Hancock would use an executive order to put police back inside Denver’s schools. (The mayor’s office has repeatedly denied there was a plan or even a discussion to use executive action, though Marrero told The Post he and Hancock did discuss the matter.)

Following Anderson’s news conference, Gaytán sent Anderson a memo, reprimanding him for publicly disclosing information from a closed meeting the board held the day after the shooting. When members emerged from the meeting on March 23, they announced they would put armed police back into high schools, almost three years after the board decided to remove them from district buildings.

Gaytán said in the memo that Anderson repeatedly violated board policies by speaking to media outlets and emailing “antagonizing responses to constituents.” (Anderson previously said he learned about the alleged executive order before the meeting.)

When Gaytán sent the memo, she also met with Anderson. Quintana-Price, the therapist working with the board, was present for that conversation, Anderson said.

But Gaytán’s effort to formally censure Anderson was blocked on April 10, when the six other board members voted to remove a discussion of the alleged violations from the meeting’s agenda.

“Anything that is happening amongst us isn’t even secondary,” board member Michelle Quattlebaum said during the meeting. “It shouldn’t matter at all because our babies don’t feel safe. Our babies are taking matters into their own hands, unintentionally making themselves unsafe. We need to make sure we are focusing on the matter at hand.”

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