One of the big winners in last week’s Denver school board election wasn’t even on the ballot.
It was Denver Public Schools Superintendent Chip Zullinger.
The election marked a subtle but significant change in the style and direction of the school board with the election of Lucia Guzman and James Mejia.
Guzman and Mejia can be expected to join with incumbent board members Bennie Milliner and Elaine Berman to form a new majority voting block on the board, one that supports Zullinger’s ‘bottom-up’ leadership style.
‘Chip’s been laying low until he knew what type of working majority would be on this board,’ Milliner said. ‘Now we’ll see who the superintendent really is.’
Zullinger’s predecessor, Irv Moskowitz, was the type of boss who told the community how things were going to be run, then asked for their support to achieve that goal. His style was also embraced by the old school board, which usually did what it saw fit regardless of public input.
Zullinger, though, just two months into his new job, is seen by many as the anti-Moskowitz.
He goes out into communities, asks people for their opinions and makes decisions based on what the people want.
‘The superintendent truly believes in empowering the community, and we have a board majority now that is favorable to that type of community empowerment,’ Milliner said.
Zullinger said it’s time to change community perceptions that the school district is not receptive to input from the community.
‘Bringing the community back into the process and actively trying to encourage parental participation is something that is important,’ Zullinger said. ‘For us, I don’t know if it’s a major shift or just reaffirming our emphasis.’
Zullinger’s willingness to listen – and his realization of the political importance of having the community behind him – was no more evident than in the most controversial issue of the recent school board election.
The debate over what type of educational program to put at the new elementary school in northwest Denver was a deciding factor in the school board race between Guzman and incumbent Rita Montero.
Guzman was swept into office after she backed the community’s wish for a dual-language Montessori school. Montero, meanwhile, opposed that approach – and got crushed at the polls.
In one of his first acts here, Zullinger walked that same northwest Denver neighborhood with parents, then at a subsequent school board meeting made his first real public declaration urging the board to adopt the dual-language Montessori school.
‘He’s very savvy politically,’ Milliner said.
Before he was hired, many in Denver’s Hispanic community criticized Zullinger because of his lack of experience working with Hispanic kids and bilingual education. But the jeers turned to cheers when he sided with them on the Montessori school issue.
Now, observers say, Zullinger has won support of the Hispanic community – important in a district where almost half of the 70,000 students are Hispanic.
To the degree the Montessori issue led to Montero’s ouster, it also helped solidify Zullinger’s support on the board. Montero was the only member of the former board who voted against Zullinger’s appointment.
‘The outcome of this election will help him with future policy decisions,’ said Pierre Jimenez, a local Hispanic activist. ‘With the election, you’re going to have a majority vote that says the community needs to be more involved, they need to be listened to.’
There are already hints that Zullinger will have more autonomy than he did under the past school board. Berman said she believes the board would move away from the micromanaging of the past regime and give the superintendent more freedom.
‘The board needs to be more efficient, focus solely on policy and support the superintendent and get out of his way so he can run the district,’ Berman said.
Ironically, it was Zullinger’s ‘bottom-up’ approach that got him in hot water in his last job in Charleston, S.C., where a newly elected school board didn’t share that same philosophy. Empowering the community led to his dismissal in South Carolina and his hiring here.
‘I just believe very strongly that we rebuild our schools from the community upward,’ Zullinger said. ‘That’s how I’ve always done it. It’s the only way I know how to operate.’
Carlos Illescas’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org