Denver Public Schools begins paying board members under 2021 state law

Denver Public Schools has paid President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán more than $10,000 for her work on the elected Board of Education since last year, making the district one of the first in Colorado to pay directors after a new state law allowed such compensation.

As of March, Gaytán was the only director receiving payments from DPS despite the school board passing a resolution in 2021 to pay members as much as $9,000 per year for official board duties, according to DPS expense transactions reviewed by The Denver Post.

Five of the seven DPS board members currently are eligible for compensation, including Scott Esserman, Carrie Olson, Michelle Quattlebaum and Charmaine Lindsay.

At least one of those directors — Esserman — told The Post that he plans to also request a stipend. A district official said DPS did not yet have expenses for April, so it’s unclear whether anyone else has filed for compensation more recently.

“If I’m the only one claiming this benefit, it deeply saddens me,” Gaytán said in an interview, adding that there is a “stigma” around school board members seeking compensation.

Elected school board members in Colorado historically have served as volunteers and were prohibited from receiving compensation until the new state law that was adopted in 2021. Despite that change in the law, local school boards have been slow to pay members.

It’s unclear how many school districts in Colorado pay their board directors; neither the state Department of Education nor the Colorado Association of School Boards tracks such information.

The Sheridan School District in Englewood was one of the first to vote to approve board compensation, and, in 2022, paid five members a total of $1,650, according to a presentation given Tuesday during a meeting of the Boulder Valley School District’s Board of Education.

The school board overseeing Aurora Public Schools also voted to pay members up to $450 a month, but that won’t go into effect until after November’s election, district spokesman Corey Christiansen said.

The Boulder school board discussed the possibility of paying members during Tuesday’s meeting, but has not yet introduced a resolution to do so. While the majority of members were supportive of board compensation, at least two raised concerns about the cost to the district when enrollment is declining and the district is trying to balance a budget.

Representatives of other major metro-area districts, including Jeffco Public Schools, the Cherry Creek School District and the Douglas County School District, said they do not pay their board members.

“We’re supposed to be lightly compensated”

DPS, the state’s largest district, has paid Gaytán at least $10,710 for her work on the school board, according to the transactions reviewed by The Post.

Most of the payments covered backpay for school board duties performed last year. Gaytán said she received the first of four payments on March 6. Altogether she has received about $7,914 after taxes and other withholdings, Gaytán said.

DPS school board members are allowed to receive up to $150 per day for as many as five days per month — as much as $9,000 per year — for official board duties, such as attending regular meetings, work sessions and retreats, according to the resolution.

Earlier this year, the board considered significantly raising the maximum amount members can earn to as much as $33,000 a year, but tabled the discussion indefinitely.

DPS didn’t have a mechanism to pay members when the board passed the 2021 resolution, so that’s why directors are just now starting to seek payment, Esserman said.

“We’re supposed to be lightly compensated for our heavy work,” he said, adding, “I ran for an elected position. That elected position is supposed to be paid — that seems appropriate to me.”

Directors Scott Baldermann and Auon’tai Anderson aren’t eligible for compensation because they were elected before the policy was adopted. Both of their terms, along with that of Lindsay’s, will end this year. So far, only Anderson has publicly announced a bid for re-election.

Olson, who formerly taught at DPS, said she had planned to take a stipend, but the process was too complicated and could potentially interfere with the pension she receives through the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, so she decided not to receive one.

Quattlebaum and Lindsay did not respond to interview requests.

Reducing financial barriers to service

Board members who spoke to The Post said that paying directors allows people who may not have been able to run for office in the past to do so, namely by breaking down financial barriers. It also creates a bigger pool of candidates for the job, they said.

Members spend as much as 20 to 40 hours a week working on the board, including preparing for votes and attending meetings, but not everyone can afford to do that depending on their job, said Gaytán, a real estate agent.

“Paying school board members makes it feasible for working-class folks to be of service to our community,” she said. “Especially those working-class folks who cannot forgo their jobs to be school board members.”

Olson was on the board when it passed the resolution in 2021 and said she initially leaned against voting for the stipend. But after talking to school board members in other districts, Olson said she reconsidered.

The job has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring members to work longer hours and to be in the spotlight more frequently, Olson said.

Boards have a lot of power over the lives of students and teachers and have to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources and close schools, she added.

“That’s a heavy lift,” said Olson, a professor at the University of Denver.

So, she said, when you think of who can serve on their local school board, it’s easy to see how it becomes difficult for people working full-time jobs and raising a family — and that leads to members skewing older and being retirees.

“What we need is more school board members that look like their students,” Olson said.

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