Analysis

Nine claims made in the Jefferson County school board recall explained

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County school board member and recall target Julie Williams at a candidate forum.

There is no shortage of accusations or political posturing in Jefferson County these days.

Backers of the high-stakes Jefferson County school board recall made their beefs with the school board majority known in June when they began collecting signatures.

Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk and their supporters have fired back with their own claims.

In an effort to help you make an informed decision, we’ve laid out each side’s claims and provided what we believe is important context.

What the recall supporters claim

1. The school board majority has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Recall backers claim that the board wasted millions of dollars. On the ballot, they cite two examples of waste: resources put into hiring a new superintendent and a lawyer.

While it’s true Superintendent Dan McMinimee is paid more than predecessor Cindy Stevenson, he’s not making $80,000 more, as recall supporters claim. McMinimee’s base salary is $220,000 and he is eligible for up to $40,000 in merit bonuses. Stevenson’s base pay was $201,328 and she was eligible for up to $20,000 in merit bonuses. Both received comparable retirement benefits. The district covers McMinimee’s expenses, which it did not do for Stevenson.

The hiring of attorney Brad Miller for $90,000 a year by the board majority has been another sore spot. Previously, the board contracted as needed with the law firm of Caplan and Earnest and others.

Between 2009 and 2013, the board spent on average $41,241 on legal fees, according to data on the district’s financial transparency page. In 2014 and 2015, the average more than doubled to $95,756.

So where does the claim about millions of dollars come from? Critics point to other moves, as well, most notably the board majority’s increased financial support for charter schools. Critics believe the board redirected millions of dollars from a voter-approved tax increase intended for district-run schools to charters.

2. The school board majority’s policies are forcing highly skilled teachers to leave.

Jefferson County teachers wait for an elevator outside the district's board chambers after the Board of Education approved a tentative compensation model that abandons the traditional structure based on time and education.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County teachers wait for an elevator outside the district’s board chambers after the Board of Education approved a tentative compensation model that abandons the traditional structure based on time and education.

Like most of the state, Jefferson County has experienced an increase in teacher turnover.

While Colorado’s second largest school district’s rate is still lower than the state average, the district saw a dramatic spike — 5 percentage points — in the first calendar year the school board majority was elected, according to data provided by the district to the Colorado Department of Education. By comparison, the statewide average ticked up less than a percentage point between 2013 and 2014.

It’s to be expected that the lion’s share of teachers who left Jeffco were rated effective or highly-effective because nearly 98 percent of teachers in Jeffco were given that rating on their annual evaluation last year.

New data from the district shows 48.5 percent of teachers were rated highly effective during the 2014-15 school year. During the same time, 49.2 percent were rated effective, 2 percent were rated partly effective and 0.2 percent were rated ineffective.

Of the 734 teachers who left the district at the end of the 2014-15 school year with completed evaluations, about 31 percent were rated highly effective, 57 percent were rated effective, 11 percent were rated partly effective and 1 percent were rated ineffective.

That means the district retained more teachers rated highly effective and lost a larger proportion of more teachers rated effective, partly effective or ineffective.

While some teachers who left the district have shared their frustration about the board majority, there’s no way of knowing what is driving the increased turnover.

3. The school board majority has limited public comment.

The school board usually limits public comment to two one-hour blocks. The first hour is for comments related to agenda items. The second hour is for items not on the agenda.

Individuals are allowed to speak for up to three minutes. Groups have 10 minutes. If more than 20 people or groups are signed up, individuals get one or two minutes and groups have five.

Soon after the school board majority was elected, the first block of public comment stretched on for two or three hours. That pushed some meetings well passed midnight. So the board majority decided to follow a pre-existing board policy that limited public comment to one hour.

4. The school board majority attempted to censor an advanced U.S. history class.

Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district's Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher "sick out."
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district’s Board of Education. The rally was the same day as a teacher “sick out.”

Last fall, Julie Williams proposed the district establish a committee to ensure a high school advanced history course did not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and that instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

The Advanced Placement U.S. History class is part of a large offering of courses designed by the College Board that can lead to earning college credit.

As part of a trend to emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization, the College Board drastically reduced the number of learning objectives. It also focused more time on early and recent American history and placed greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics complained that the changes were revisionist and presented a negative view of the country.

After student protests in Jeffco drew national attention, the board voted on a scaled back proposal that dropped Williams’ review but did change the composition of the district’s curriculum review committee to include parents and students. Previously, the committee reported to the superintendent. Now, it reports to the board. That means those meetings must be opened to the public.

A postscript: the organization responsible for designing the advanced history class made further revisions to the framework this summer following the conservative backlash. In part, the College Board neutralized some of the language it uses in the learning objectives and added a section about American Exceptionalism. The changes fall short of Williams’ original proposal.

5. The school board majority repeatedly violated open meeting laws by making major decisions behind closed doors.

To violate the state’s open meeting laws, three of the five Jefferson County school board members would need to meet in person without posting public notice or correspond electronically either by email or text. The board could also potentially violate public meeting laws by holding “spoke” or “walking quorum” meetings. That’s when one school board member acts as a go-between several members to coordinate discussions or votes.

Recall supporters claim the decision to hire Miller was a done deal before the board voted in public. They point two key pieces of evidence. First, only board majority members spoke to Miller before the vote. Second, a board member of another school district said Miller had been hired by the Jeffco school board the day before the Jeffco board met.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Bob Kerrigan said he did his own research on Miller and did not talk to any Jeffco school board member about Miller.

The majority board members say any of the five board members could have talked to Miller, and that because none of the interviews took place with multiple board members, the law was not violated.

What the recall targets counter

6. The school board majority has given teachers $21 million dollars in raises.

This is true. But there are important pieces of context to keep mind.

First, this school board was the first in five years to be in a position to give teachers raises. After five years of deep budget cuts, funding only reached pre-Great Recession levels in 2014.

Second, the $21 million over two years in raises is far cry from the raises teachers were promised when they agreed to budget cuts and freezes during the recession. But given how the state funds school districts and a lack of local funding, the board and district have few options to fill a $28 million gap in teacher pay created during the recession.

Third, the $21 million equates to about a 1 to 2 percent raise per year for each of the district’s some 5,000 teachers. That, critics say, is less than the rate of cost of living increases in the Denver-metro area.

7. The school board majority has expanded school choice.

Americans For Prosperity-Colorado volunteer Kim Gilmartin, left, and AFP field director Alex Bolton, knocked on doors in a Littleton neighborhood Sept. 19 asking voters for their opinion on the school board majority's policies including school choice.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Americans For Prosperity-Colorado volunteer Kim Gilmartin, left, and AFP field director Alex Bolton, knocked on doors in a Littleton neighborhood Sept. 19 asking voters for their opinion on the school board majority’s policies including school choice.

Since the board majority took office in 2013, it has approved one of two new charter schools it has considered. That charter school, Golden View Classical Academy, enrolls 498 students, less than 1 percent of the district’s 85,000 students.

The board has no control over how many organizations apply for a charter, so it has no direct control over how many new charters open.

But the board majority has signaled it wants more charter schools in Jeffco.

It set a local precedent to give charter schools equal funding to its district-run schools and has provided loans to charter schools in need of a lifeline. And at a Dec. 10 meeting, the board will consider moving its charter application window to the spring to give charter schools more time to plan prior to opening.

8. The school board built a new school without incurring debt.

One of the most heated debates the school board had this year was how to manage expected growth in northwest Arvada. District officials project 6,000 new students in Arvada during the next seven years.

Superintendent Dan McMinimee and his staff first pitched the district borrowing $30 million to build a new kindergarten through eighth grade school. However, the board majority rejected the proposal, saying it did not want to add any more debt to the district given an uncertain state funding forecast from the state.

As part of the district’s final 2015-2016 budget, the board majority instead directed $18 million to build a new school for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

A crucial fact about this claim: the school hasn’t been built yet. While school officials believe the school can be built for $18 million, there has been no bid or contract awarded.

9. Student achievement has increased since the board majority took office.

Recent student data is mixed.

Graduation rates between 2013 and 2014 increased by 2 percentage points. But the school board majority hadn’t enacted any sort of policies changes by May 2014 to really drive that change.  Meanwhile, ACT scores between 2014 and 2015 remained flat.

Fifth-graders performed better on the state’s science tests last year, but eighth-graders performed worse. There was a modest uptick in fourth grade social studies tests in 2015. But seventh grade scores for the same year were flat.

Reading and math data on the state’s most recent tests won’t be available until after the election. The state is switching assessments, however, so it will be nearly impossible to make comparisons.

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How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.

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: