Game changer

Jeffco board rejects fact-finder recommendations; Witt makes new compensation proposal

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Jeffco Public Schools teacher last spring rallied with hundreds of others along Wadsworth Boulevard against the district's board majority. The board majority Thursday night rejected a third party's recommendation to give pay raises to "partly effective" teachers.

GOLDEN — Jeffco Public Schools teachers will continue to work under their 2013 compensation plan after the board of education here rejected the recommendations of a third party to provide salary bumps for teachers rated “partly effective.”

Instead, teachers will receive retroactive pay increases later this fall after the Jeffco Board of Education settles the compensation matter at a later date.

The board’s 3-2 majority blocked a resolution to accept the recommendations of the third party fact-finder that suggested teachers who were rated “partly effective” under the district’s evaluation system be given raises. The fact-finder also recommended that the district and teachers union improve the teacher evaluation tool that they said was not statistically reliable.

Because the board rejected the recommendations from the fact-finder, the final compensation system will be determined by the five-member elected body, as outlined in the district’s collective bargaining agreement. Given the conservative and free-market tendencies of the board’s majority, that could mean a radical shift in how teachers are paid.

During the board’s discussion of the fact finder’s report, board chairman Ken Witt presented his own compensation proposal, which surprised some board members, district staff, and board observers.

Witt’s proposal, characterized as “a lot” by Jeffco Public Schools’ chief financial officer Lorie Gillis, calls for every teacher to make at least $38,000 per year. The current base salary for a first year Jeffco teachers is $33,616.

Further, Witt also recommended compensation be increased based on the most recent employee evaluation ratings. Every “effective” and “highly effective” Jeffco teacher would receive a compensation increase, and “highly effective” teachers would receive a compensation increase that is at least 50 percent higher than the compensation increase of “effective” teachers.

Gillis, who said she had only seen the proposal for the first time tonight, told the board her team would need time to crunch all the numbers.

Jefferson County Education Association executive director Lisa Elliott said she was “flabbergasted” by Witt’s proposal.

“This board majority knows exactly what they’re going to do,” Elliott said earlier in the evening during an interview with Chalkbeat. “They’re just walking through the steps.”

The majority — comprised of Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams — said they rejected the recommendation of the fact-finder because his suggestions were not in line with the district’s goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom.

Additionally, the three continued to raise fundamental concerns that the current pay structure for Jeffco teachers — generally based on a teacher’s number of years in the classroom — was unfair and not competitive.

“We need to explore making pay for new teachers more aggressive to competitive,” Newkirk said.

Minority members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman voted to approve the recommendations, repeatedly citing the report’s claim that the teacher evaluation tool is unreliable.

“There’s a lot of questions marks,” Dahlkemper said.  

Dahlkemper and Fellman also indicated their desire to move beyond the contract negotiations, which they said have had the unintended byproduct of sowing fear and mistrust between many of the district’s teachers and board majority.

The teacher evaluation system has been in place since 2008 and was created by the district and union together. However, this would be the first year teachers’ evaluation ratings would be tied to compensation across the district. The district has piloted a pay-for-performance model at 20 schools.

Salaries for teachers have been frozen since 2010. Teachers agreed to the salary freezes as the district weathered budget cuts from the Great Recession.

The current negotiations are only about annual compensation. The district’s and union’s full agreement expires in 2015.

According to the union, this is the first time the Jeffco Public Schools’ Board of Education has rejected either an arbitrator or fact finder’s recommendation during contract negotiations.

Lights - camera - action

Relive the Jefferson County school board recall in 12 minutes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

What can a school board election tell us about American democracy?

Well, if that school board race happens to be in Jefferson County, involve the nation’s largest teachers union and one of the country’s most influential conservative nonprofit groups … quite a bit, actually.

At least that’s the premise of a new documentary short film, “Million-Dollar School Board” by independent filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler. 

The film chronicles the high-profile school board race — which included debates about how history should be taught and how teachers should get paid — that ended with three conservative members being ousted by a coalition of teachers, parents and community members. More than $1 million was poured into the campaign from all sides, hence the film’s title.

The Jeffco film is part of a nine-part series of short documentaries, “Postcards from The Great Divide,” released in a digital partnership between PBS’ Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel.

The goal is to answer this question:

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

You can view the roughly 12-minute film in its entirety here:

Then reread a sampling of our coverage:

 

full disclosure

Teachers unions gave huge sums of seed money to Jeffco recall, new records show

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of a school board recall effort in Jefferson County, from left, Michael Blanton, Wendy McCord, and Tina Gurdikian, spoke at the campaign kick off event in July.

National and local teachers unions provided more than $265,000 to a nonprofit group that served as a catalyst to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County.

That is according to campaign disclosures filed Thursday in response to a judge’s order that the group, Jeffco United, disclose its donors.

The organization, a social welfare nonprofit with tax-exempt status, was established in May and received its first donation — $25,000 — from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. In total, the CEA gave $113,500 to the group, records show.

The national union was even more generous. The National Education Association gave $150,000 to Jeffco United in late August.

Complete Colorado — an arm of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, supported the recalled school board members — first reported the NEA contribution.

The disclosures shed significant new light on who bankrolled the high-profile recall, which opponents of the conservative board majority repeatedly described as a broad community-based effort. But the full picture of the financial forces on both sides of the campaign remains incomplete, because of lax state and federal reporting requirements.

Who gave to Jeffco United? |
• National Education Association, $150,000
• Colorado Education Association, $113,500
• Jefferson County Education Association, $20,000
• All other individuals, $3,115

“This is all we asked for,” said Dede Laugesen, director of Colorado Government Watch, the El Paso County-based organization that filed the complaint against Jeffco United. “It is only too bad voters did not have this information before the election.”

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United, said it would be a mistake to say the recall was “union-led.”

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” Hansen said. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffco United eventually launched two sister political committees to finance the recall and the election of a five-candidate slate. Most of that money — more than $200,000 — was raised locally.

Those committees raised and publically disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a large donation from Jeffco United early in the campaign.

An administrative court judge last week ruled that Jeffco United violated the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge found there was enough evidence to suggest that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to spearhead the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.

Typically, social welfare nonprofits — such as One Colorado, Progress Now and Americans For Prosperity — are allowed to raise money without disclosing their donors and then donate a portion to political committees, which are required to disclose donors to the secretary of state.

It’s common practice for advocacy organizations to operate multiple fundraising and spending apparatuses including 527s, independent expenditure committees and issue committees.

However, under Colorado law if an organization’s “major purpose” is to act only on a singular political issue, it must file as a political committee with the secretary of state and not as a nonprofit.

Judge Robert N. Spencer, in his decision, found Support Jeffco Kids — another group named in the original complaint — had an established track record of work on a variety of issues, therefore it did not violate the “major purpose” law.

Spencer’s decision only applies to Jeffco United.

Other nonprofits, including Colorado Independent Action, which acted similarly to Jeffco United, came to the aid of the recall targets. Independent Action, like Complete Colorado, is an arm of the Independence Institute, which does not disclose its donors.

Ousted board chairman Witt said the institute has a long track record for supporting politicians who champion for expanding school choice.

“I don’t think there was any surprise in those organizations being strong advocates for what we’re doing,” Witt said. He added, “I’m delighted that the truth has finally come out.”

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.