Wednesday will be an important day in Chip Zullinger’s nine-month career as Denver’s superintendent of schools.
That afternoon, school board members will vote on a bilingual-education project that Zullinger favors but that is so controversial they couldn’t even agree to vote on it last time it came up.
Then, by unfortunate coincidence, the board will go into closed session with Zullinger to start talking about his first annual review, which must be completed by June 30.
Board members say they don’t want to fire the superintendent, but they do want to talk about his tendency to act first, consult second.
In the bilingual-ed spat, Zullinger and experts from the University of Colorado crafted a federal grant proposal to fund a pilot program in bilingual education. The program would allow Spanish-speaking children to stay in classes conducted in Spanish for up to five years before being mainstreamed, rather than three as in Denver’s current, court-supervised program.
Some board members had two problems with that. First, they said it might be illegal. Second, they were angry about being asked to vote on a proposal they hadn’t even read.
Since then, the board and the CU educators have revised the proposal; for example, DPS’s head of bilingual education has been added to the project’s steering committee. But board president Elaine Gantz Berman said this isn’t the first time board members have thought Zullinger moved a tad too fast.
‘That wasn’t the only situation where that had occurred,’ she said, though she added that the others were so minor she couldn’t remember them without consulting her notes. Generally, relations between Zullinger and the board have been good, she said. ‘The stakes were much higher in this particular situation in that the whole issue of bilingual education has been a politically volatile issue, and this grant epitomized the whole debate around bilingual,’ Berman said.
To board member James Mejia, on the other hand, Zullinger’s actions are what leadership is all about.
‘I credit him with bringing different communities around the cause of raising the achievement levels of our kids,’ Mejia said.
The Rev. Lucia Guzman, another board member, said Zullinger’s desire to get things done quickly may ruffle some bureaucratic feathers but benefits the people who really matter. ‘I think he has been extraordinary in terms of working in the community, listening, trying to open doors. And at the same time that’s been problematic, because we’re in a situation where the administration, staff and possibly even the board is not used to someone who moves in a totally different manner than what’s been used to,’ she said.
Guzman declined to offer details, saying Zullinger deserves to hear them first, in the review process that begins Wednesday. But she did allow: ‘There’s always strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t think his weaknesses outweigh his strengths.’
Zullinger was not available for an interview Monday.