The former communications director for Denver Public Schools says the district isn’t very good at communicating

Jenny Brundin / CPR News
The Denver Public Schools headquarters near downtown.

A former Denver Public Schools communications director is concerned the board of education is not getting the full information it needs to make decisions, and that the district’s culture over the past three years is stifling transparency and accountability.

“The information is not being shared as readily as it should be,” said Will Jones, who was dismissed in February after nearly nine years with DPS in what the district says was a restructuring.

Jones also criticized the district’s use of confidentiality agreements, stating that they, “hinder efforts toward transparency.”

'Limiting the flow of information to board members can limit the board's capacity to oversee the district effectively'

At a press conference Thursday, Jones urged the board of education to reconsider its adoption of an operating model called policy governance, which means the board must rely on Superintendent Alex Marrero for all of its information, he said.

In a statement, the district said the board interacts directly only with the superintendent, their sole employee, “to ensure a streamlined management structure.”

 It said that happens to prevent board members from meeting with individual departments and providing their direction to that team.

“The board provides direction to the superintendent so that the departments receive their directions from one voice, not seven.”

The policy governance model was adopted under a previous board in 2021.

Before that, board members could reach out to the communications team for the most up-to-date knowledge of district operations.

“Limiting the flow of information to board members can limit the board's capacity to oversee the district effectively,” he said. “In my opinion, this approach not only conflicts with the fundamental principles of public accountability, but also gets in the way of our collective ability to safeguard and enhance the educational environments for our children.”

Thursday, as a result of the press conference, the DPS Board of Education passed 7 to 0 a statement of support on policy governance. Under law, the board has access to all district information. It said that a previous board passed a policy agreeing to limit information requests to reduce the administrative burden on the district staff. If the board ever believes it is not receiving the information it requires, the board may revisit and change this policy at any time, it said.

Another issue Jones raised: Employees signing NDAs before receiving severance

During the DPS Board of Education’s public comment period Monday night, Jones told the board the district is requiring employees to sign confidentiality agreements before receiving a severance package. That prevents them from speaking about district matters for three years after they leave DPS. Jones declined the severance package.

Jones was offered a $40,716 severance. In exchange, he would have had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which would have meant giving up his rights should he want to pursue legal action against the district in the future.

“I would rather not have the money and continue to push for helping our communities and our board members get as much information as possible,” he said.

It is unknown how many employees have been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Jones said he’s learned that all members of the communications team must sign confidentiality agreements.

In a statement, DPS said it offers severance packages to employees in certain circumstances and adheres to Colorado law, ensuring that NDAs “are narrowly tailored and legally compliant.” It said nondisclosure agreements predate Marrero.

It said severance agreements often include a waiver of claims and a mutual nondisclosure clause.

“Mutual nondisclosure prevents an employer from bad-mouthing the employee or otherwise harming the employee's reputation and asks the employee to refrain from doing the same,” it said.

Better information flow and transparency

Jones said two board members called him after the Monday meeting, asking for information about how the district was operating day-to-day, upcoming security policy changes and personnel decisions at schools. He shared “high-level” things that they weren’t aware of.

“I don’t know what the board doesn’t know,” he said.

Jones said his principal goal is to find a way for the board to get as much information as it can. He’d like to see Marrero give board members weekly or monthly roundups of all the operational issues in the district.

Jones said Marrero came to his office and told him if board members contacted Jones with questions, as was the practice previously, not to answer them but to refer them to Marrero.  

“I can provide you with details on what I’ve seen and heard over the past three years,” he told board members Monday.

Jones wants to be a conduit for employees who are too fearful to speak out.  A principal recently contacted him and told him they were fearful that their school wasn’t safe. But the principal doesn’t feel safe to talk about it given that a former principal at another school was fired after expressing concerns about safety in a televised interview.

“If you are afraid and you're constrained, get my number. If you're afraid and constrained, call me. … I've received awards from DPS for my integrity. I won't rat you out, but I will make sure that the Board of Education is aware of your concerns.”