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.

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.