Dougco to seek tax increases

CASTLE ROCK – In an unusual split decision, Douglas County school board members voted 5-2 Tuesday night to ask voters on Nov. 1 for tax increases to boost operating and building dollars.

The board of self-described conservatives, who have stuck together in unanimous if controversial votes on issues such as vouchers and opposition to efforts to increase school funding statewide, differed on whether to ask for more money in tough economic times.

Justin Williams

“My little neighborhood has about a dozen homes for sale in it – many are in short sale or foreclosure,” said board member Justin Williams, one of the “no” votes. “Many of my friends are behind in their mortgages.”

Neither Williams nor board member Meghann Silverthorn, who cast the other dissenting vote, said they disagreed with the need for additional dollars or the district’s plan for spending the money.

In fact, Williams said there was “no debate” on those points, describing his son’s first-grade class of 34 students led by a teacher who works every weekend. He said Douglas County teachers haven’t received a pay raise in four years.

But, he said, too many friends have had their names in the newspaper when their homes go into foreclosure and they’re seeking help from family members, churches and even the state.

Doug Benevento

“It is my feeling the county is in worse shape than the school district,” he said.

Other board members ceded the economic reality of the lingering national recession but said they want to give voters the chance to decide.

“Ultimately, I think we need to find out what the voters want and what they’re willing to pay for,” said board member Doug Benevento. “If it fails, we won’t be going back for many years.”

Douglas County last sought tax increases for operating dollars and building needs in 2008. Both questions failed, as did half of the state’s school district tax ballot questions that year.

A “groundbreaking” pay-for-performance plan and up to 3 new schools

The district’s newest tax proposal is considerably less than was sought in 2008, which involved a $359 million bond issue and a $17 million increase for operating dollars.

This year’s questions are for a $200 million bond issue, which includes up to 3 new schools in Parker and Castle Rock, and a $20 million annual increase for instructional expenses, including funding a new pay-for-performance plan for teachers.

Questions 3A and 3B
  • Douglas County voters will be asked to approve a $200 million bond issue and a $20 million increase for operating expenses
  • The cost, based on an average home value of $340,000, is $45 annually – roughly $26 for the bond and $19 for the operating hike

Other districts’ tax questions

  • Thompson – $12.8 million operating increase
  • Roaring Fork – $4.8 million operating increase
  • Garfield Re-2, Rifle – $3 million operating increase

The cost to Douglas County residents, based on an average home value of $340,000, is another $45 per year for both increases – or, roughly, $26 for the bond issue and $19 for the mill-levy override, said Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief financial officer.

Because home values are dropping in Douglas County, as in many other areas, property tax bills are declining. Board member Dan Gerken pointed out the average tax bill is expected to drop $174 – if both tax measures pass, it will drop, instead, $129.

In their comments before voting, however, board members focused less on numbers than on one aspect of their plan for spending the additional dollars – a pay-for-performance plan for teachers that eliminates seniority.

“We have this whole amazing plan to reset the bar in American education,” said board member Cliff Stahl. “We’re not asking Douglas County voters to infuse money into the same old system.”

A six-page framework for the new system describes it as “competitive, market-value compensation,” in which teachers would be placed in a “market range” based on demand and factors such as whether they have multiple certifications and teach in a demographically challenging school.

Current teachers would have the option of moving into the new system – but only those in the new system would be able to earn more for reaching rigorous goals in evaluation, assessment and areas such as student engagement. For the first three years, teachers could earn up to $20,000 more each year. But after that, if they choose to move into a “total compensation” model, they could earn up to $100,000 a year.

The plan, which is still in development, could cost an additional $13 million per year in the first four years and up to $33 million annually in years five and beyond, according to the framework.

“Our teachers are professionals .. but they are not currently compensated like professionals,” said Gerken, noting the district’s top teacher pay is now $78,000.

Resolutions opposing other efforts to increase school funding statewide

Several school board members said they believe their efforts to pass what will be ballot questions 3A and 3B will be hurt by a statewide funding initiative known as Proposition 103.

That effort, led by state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, would raise state income tax to 5 percent and state sales tax to 3 percent, their levels in 1999. The increases would be in effect for five years, generating $550 million a year that would be earmarked for increased funding of school districts and state colleges.

“I think it’s unfortunate this is going to be on the ballot this year,” said school board president John Carson. “This is just going to perpetuate the status quo funding system that is a total disservice to our county.”

Carson urged board members to “go on record” opposing Prop 103 and they did, voting 7-0 in support of a resolution outlining their opposition.

Similarly, board members voted 7-0 in support of their third resolution proclaiming their disfavor with the current Lobato vs. State funding trial, in which plaintiffs are asking a Denver judge to find Colorado’s K-12 funding is inadequate.

“I have no doubt if the plaintiffs are successful, our county will once again be on the short end of the redistribution of public education dollars in this state,” Carson said.

The board president, and other board members, frequently express dissatisfaction with a state funding system that “sends more money to Denver” and “cheats this county.”

Douglas County is dinged by a state funding formula that takes poverty into account. The affluent district has a student poverty rate – determined by eligibility for federal meal assistance – of less than 10 percent while its northern neighbor, Denver, has a poverty rate topping 70 percent.

This year, that formula means Dougco will receive $6,212 per student while Denver will receive $6,867 – a difference of $655 per pupil.

Daniels Fund enters voucher fight with $330,000 gift and potential for more

In back-to-back public comment sessions Monday and Tuesday, a few speakers have questioned whether board members should ask voters for more money while waging a legal battle in support of the district’s voucher pilot, declared unconstitutional Aug. 12 by a Denver judge.

News of a $330,000 gift to cover legal costs, and the potential for $200,000 more, may quiet some of those complaints.

Linda Childears, president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, said the Denver-based foundation’s interest in vouchers predates the Dougco pilot, which was approved March 15.

Bill Daniels, the late cable magnate who created the foundation, wasn’t interested in business as usual in K-12 education, she said.

“Bill loved free enterprise, he loved choice,” Childears said. “We really see this as a way for parents to have some choice and some control in their kids’ education.”

Dougco school board members, anticipating a court battle, created a legal fund when they established the voucher pilot. Before Daniels, the largest financial backer was oil and gas developer Alex Cranberg, who donated $50,000.

Daniels is donating $330,000 outright and offering $200,000 as a match – meaning district officials have to come up with a similar figure to secure that funding. There is no deadline on the match, Childears said.


Under the pilot, 500 Douglas County students would have received $4,575 each in public funding to attend private schools this fall. A Denver judge issued a permanent injunction halting the program this month after finding it violated five provisions of the Colorado Constitution and the state’s School Finance Act.

District spokesman Randy Barber on Tuesday put the district’s legal bills at $360,000 – and rising. The district faces a Sept. 26 deadline to file a notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

“I’m immensely proud that the Daniels Fund board has decided the reforms we’re pursuing are worthy of the legacy of Bill Daniels,” Carson, the board president, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Disclosure: The Daniels Fund is a funder of Education News Colorado.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.