After a months-long search, more than 7,000 survey responses, 50 focus groups with over 680 parents, teachers and school and community leaders, and a 6-to-1 board of education vote Thursday, Denver Public Schools has a new superintendent.
Bronx native Alex Marrero will begin his job overseeing Colorado’s largest school district with more than 92,000 students in 207 schools and over 14,000 employees on July 6.
Marrero brings with him a decade of experience as a guidance counselor, assistant principal and principal in the New York City Department of Education. In January 2020, he joined the City School District of New Rochelle as the assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction and became the first Latinx head of the city’s school system in September, serving as acting and then interim superintendent.
Marrero previously served as assistant superintendent at the East Ramapo Central School District in New York. DPS officials say there he supported moving schools into “Good Standing” — a designation given by New York state’s school accountability system — and increased graduation rates among students.
Marrero has been honored as an outstanding administrator by the Latino Caucus of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators and inducted into the New York Academy of Public Education. He has earned degrees from Fordham University, Manhattan College and The Sage Colleges.
Marrero’s contract runs about two years through June 30, 2023, and comes with a base salary of $260,000.
'You are the right person'
Board member Angela Cobian said as the son of Cuban and Dominican parents and as a former guidance counselor, Marrero will bring “a power of compassion and a power of lived experience.”
"You are the right person that I can entrust my former students' future to," she said. “Our board cannot let you fail.”
Fellow board member Rev. Brad Laurvick said he was impressed with Marrero’s ability to bring his knowledge of the latest high-level theory on education practices down to the student level and what that means in classrooms.
The only “no” vote was from board member Barbara O’Brien. She said the process, “didn’t produce the kind of stellar applicants for superintendent Denver Public Schools that I think we deserve to get.”
Marrero beat out two other finalists for the superintendent post: Stephanie Soliven, assistant superintendent of secondary leading and learning at Brevard Public Schools in Florida and Andre Wright, the chief academic officer at Aurora Public Schools.
“Never would I have imagined that the son of an immigrant mother, a refugee father, who was expected to be another statistic in the quest for the American dream, can now lead a national top-performing school district, to continue to raise the bar for all students and to eliminate any opportunity gaps between identifiable groups of students,” Marrero said Thursday after the vote.
Marrero said any statistically significant (achievement) gap among student groups, such as race, class, gender identity, ethnicity or language is unacceptable.
“I'm looking forward to collaborating, to removing those barriers with you,” he said.
He said the task to make education more equitable will take commitment from students, parents, school, staff, business interests, and the general public.
Board Chair Carrie Olson told Marrero that she believes in his ability to inspire people and help create a system where every child is seen and heard.
“I'll hold you to the hope, the inspiration and the promise of unity you have ignited throughout so many people in our community,” Olson said.
Anderson votes as investigation of allegations is underway
Also voting to approve his selection was board member Tay Anderson, who has temporarily stepped down as a board member after anonymous sexual assault allegations against him emerged.
The board said on May 31 that Anderson would continue to vote on necessary matters before the board, but Anderson told Chalkbeat that Thursday’s vote will be his last until at least August while he faces an investigation into those allegations.
After a civil rights group Black Lives Matter 5280 said that a woman came to them to report that Anderson had sexually assaulted her, the district hired an outside law firm to investigate.
Anderson, who appeared on-screen during the board meeting only for the vote, described it as “one of my last votes for the foreseeable future on the Denver school board.” He told Marrero he was excited to “hopefully get to work with you to see Denver Public Schools thrive.”
“This is going to be the right vote for our children, the right vote for students of color, especially young men of color in our district to see themselves represented in the highest position in our district,” Anderson said. “This is the right vote for Denver's future.”
New superintendent hiring not without controversy
The same week Marrero district leaders held a Wednesday press conference to announce Marrero as the district’s new superintendent, he was named in a federal lawsuit filed in New York where he is currently an interim superintendent.
The City School District of New Rochelle’s former medical director Dr. Brooke Balchan alleges that district leaders silenced and retaliated against her. The suit says officials stopped her efforts to keep the school community informed, prepared and safe.
Marrero was one of several school district leaders accused in the civil suit of “playing politics over public safety” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Balchan accused Marrero specifically of giving mixed messages to her about the role she and her staff were to play in the District’s COVID-19 testing plan, of using a health-screening platform that was different than the one she recommended, and of keeping schools operating in-person contrary to her advice.
In addition, Marrero is named in an incident in which he formulated a plan to transport school staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Balchan was concerned about the legality of the plan because non-medical school staff hadn’t been prioritized by New York’s governor to receive the vaccine. She intervened, and the program was shut down and the hospital fined.
A statement from Denver Board of Education President Carrie Olson and Vice President Jennifer Bacon said the complaint was filed against New Rochelle district leadership and not Marrero alone.
“We have reviewed the information contained in the complaint that involves Dr. Marrero, and we have been in contact with New Rochelle School District about the matter. We have full confidence in Dr. Marrero, and we stand behind our choice for superintendent," the statement said.
The City School District of New Rochelle said it categorically denies that any current or former district employees have been silenced or retaliated against, in any manner, in connection with the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The District takes great pride in the manner in which its leadership team has handled all aspects of this unprecedented crisis. Any assertion that District representatives have acted in an unlawful manner in responding to the pandemic is simply false,” the district said in a statement.
Some community groups want DPS to continue superintendent search
Meanwhile, in the weeks leading up to Marrero’s confirmation, some community groups petitioned board members to expand the search, asking them to keep Interim Superintendent Dwight Jones in place for another year.
They raised concerns about all three finalists’ depth and breadth of experience, stating specifically that Marrero didn’t have enough experience in developing programs for English Language Learners. DPS is under a federal court order to better serve tens of thousands of Denver students who are learning English.
Marrero has said that he gained intimate working knowledge of what it takes to improve academic skills of English language learners and students who are not literate in their first languages during his roles as assistant principal and principal. He was also an English language learner himself.
The dissenting board member, O’Brien, echoed the concern on Thursday night.
“I think we should have someone forward who has more experience than we currently have,” she said.
On Tuesday, in light of the federal lawsuit filed in New Rochelle, a group of Denver Latino organizations renewed their calls to halt the confirmation in a letter.
“We are having difficulty understanding how it has been possible that the Alma Advisory Group and consequently the DPS Board have not shared this critical information with the Denver community. One of the absolute priorities in this new position will be to have a comprehensive post-pandemic plan in place before schools open in the fall,” the letter reads.
It is signed by a number of groups including the Congress for Hispanic Educators, the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education and Padres y Jovenes Unidos.
They accused the search firm, Alma Advisory Group, of not doing its due diligence in vetting potential candidates.
O’Brien said that the culture change with Marrero coming from the East coast is gigantic.
“It is a complicated environment that he will be inserted into,” she said. “This learning curve on both fronts running a larger district, and this culture change are going to mean that Denver students and families are going to experience a superintendent with a huge learning curve in front of him ... I don’t think he’s quite the right fit for us.”
But board vice chair Bacon said she hopes DPS can now move forward.
“ I hope now we're in a position where we can build each other up. We can build up our district, we can build up Dr. Marrero, we can build up each other because our students need that,” she said.