Colorado

Education issues a key feature of Election 2013

Colorado’s 2013 election is a great example of the old cliché that all politics is local.

Aside from Amendment 66, the proposed $950 million P-12 statewide tax increase, and the proposed marijuana tax, ballots around the state are dominated by local races and questions.

IllustrationIn Arapahoe County, for instance, there are five city elections for nearly 20 offices and nine ballot measures and five school district elections for 13 board seats, plus two school ballot measures. (That’s not to mention the 15 special district questions on Arapahoe ballots.)

School board elections are a common feature on ballots around the state, although the number of proposed district tax measures is down compared to recent years, partly because some school boards were reluctant to compete with A66 for voter attention.

Elections this year are being conducted this year with mail ballots that voters will need to return by mail or at voting centers.

Here’s a quick review at how Election 2013 shapes up for education:

Statewide issues

The vote on A66 sets up a watershed moment for education funding in Colorado. Passage of the income-tax increase would create significant new revenues for public schools and trigger implementation of Senate Bill 13-213, a sweeping change in how funds are allocated to individual school districts.

Defeat of the amendment could well lock schools into a tight “new normal” of funding that is some $1 billion lower than it would have been if not for recession-induced budget cuts in recent years.

Proposition AA, the proposed taxes on recreational marijuana, also has education implications in that some of the revenue would be earmarked for school construction.

Learn more:

School board races

Colorado’s 178 school boards are organized in a variety of ways. Many boards have five members, some have seven; many board members serve at-large while others represent areas within districts. Some boards preside over multi-million-dollar enterprises; others oversee small budgets and a few hundred students.

But all school board members are elected, and all run in November of odd-numbered years.

There’s also great variation in the intensity of board races, with hot contests in some districts and cancelled elections in others because there weren’t enough candidates to make a race.

For instance, among the 10 largest districts, there are strongly contested races in Denver, Douglas County and Jefferson County and full slates of candidates in Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Colorado Springs District 11.

But only one of two seats is contested in Cherry Creek, and only one of three in Poudre. And Boulder Valley and St. Vrain cancelled their board elections because there weren’t enough candidates to make a race.

Among El Paso County’s 15 districts, about a dozen have at least one contested seat. (El Paso has the largest number of districts of any single county.)

Denver and Douglas County have the highest profile races. In DPS, where four of seven seats are on the ballot, the races are a replay of recent years’ contests in that they put a group of candidates who support the administration’s reform initiatives against a group who are more skeptical of those policies and more supportive of neighborhood school improvement.

In Dougco, there’s a similar four-versus-four split, with challengers attacking the current board’s operating procedures and financial management, among other issues.

The intensity seems a bit lower, but Jeffco has a similar split between administration supporters and critics in its three races.

The Dougco election in 2009 was marked by over Republican Party involvement in the board races, leading to a takeover of the board. This year the GOP is backing certain candidates in both counties.

There’s also an overlay of partisanship or ideology in a few other districts’ races. In Grand Junction’s Mesa 51 contests the county GOP is backing certain candidates. An in northern Colorado’s Thompson district a tea party-type group named Liberty Watch is backing a slate.

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District tax proposals

School district tax proposals were the big election story in 2012, when voters in 29 school districts approved 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion. Districts had 38 proposals worth about $1.03 billion on the ballot.

The list is shorter and the ask is smaller this year. Some 23 districts have tax measures on the ballot, but the amount requested is only $206.4 million, according to information compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project. And the largest proposal, an $80 million bond issue in Littleton, wouldn’t require additional property taxes but merely asks voters to approve continuation of an existing tax.

Other proposals of note include a $44 million bond issue in Commerce City and tax overrides for operating expenses in Westminster ($5.2 million), Lewis-Palmer ($4.5 million) and Canon City ($1.3 million).

Six small districts are seeking $30.4 million worth of bond issues to raise the matching funds needed to qualify for state Building Excellent Schools Today construction grants.

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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.