double the fun

Can — and should — Colorado teachers serve on local school boards?

The Denver Public Schools board at a meeting in December 2014 at South High School.

When we published a story about people eager to fill a vacancy on the Denver school board, a reader posted the following comment on Facebook about one of the hopefuls:

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The “actual teacher” here — Arnetta Koger — teaches social studies while coaching other teachers at the Denver School of International Studies. She is one of two teachers who were in the initial field of 22. Both she and charter school teacher Dexter Korto are among 10 finalists to succeed Landri Taylor in representing northeast Denver on the board.

The question on social media and the presence of two teachers on the finalist list made us wonder: Are there any restrictions on Colorado teachers serving on school boards, and what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of a classroom instructor taking on the dual roles?

First off, let’s look at the legal question. There is no law in Colorado that forbids a school district employee — whether it’s a teacher, school bus driver or mid-level administrator — from serving on the school board in the district in which they work.

However, some school districts, including Denver and Aurora, forbid school district employees from serving on their own school boards, citing the risk of conflicts of interest.

Such prohibitions are not unusual. Denver-based libertarian think tank the Independence Institute reported in 2004 that 11 of the state’s 25 largest districts had such policies at the time.

The Denver Public Schools policy, adopted in 1987, states:

An employee elected to the Board shall be required to relinquish employment with the district prior to taking office. Employees are encouraged to consider this prior to running for the Board.

The policy does not explicitly address charter school employees, who aren’t on the district payroll but work for the charter schools themselves.

District officials have said they’ve notified finalists Koger and Korto, a writing teacher at DSST: Cole, a DPS charter school, of the policy, and that legal advice would be sought in Korto’s case.

Education policy experts and observers we spoke to said they believe it’s a good idea for educators to serve on school boards — with some caveats.

“Teachers understand how policies impact students and schools,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “A lot of what school boards are tasked with doing, a lot of what they decide — especially curriculum — teacher knowledge is really important.”

Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center, part of the Independence Institute, said she believes educators can bring a wealth of information to school boards. But she said teachers should not serve on the boards of districts where they teach.

Many school boards in Colorado bargain teacher salaries, so the conflict of interest is clear, Benigno said.

“I personally wouldn’t have any problem with a retired teacher being on a school board, nor a teacher from another district,” she said. “They’re not going to be voting on their own compensation package or other policy that would impact them.”

Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.
Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.

She added that similar policies should be adopted by charter school boards.

Jane Urschel, deputy director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said it’s rare for a teacher to serve on his or her own school board. But it has happened, especially in smaller rural school districts.

“It can work,” she said, adding that the electorate has the final say on who serves on school boards.

Urschel said the association suggests any school district employee who sits on the school board doing the following:

  1. After being elected, send a blanket disclosure to the Secretary of State’s office
  2. Disclose any conflicts of interest as they pop up on the agenda
  3. Do not engage in the discussion around that agenda item
  4. Do not vote on the agenda item
  5. Note the conflict of interest in the meeting’s minutes

But Urschel said teachers who serve on school boards — like all school board members — need to remember they work for a large consistency, not just the folks in their profession.

“Teachers have excellent expertise,” she said. “But they, like every other participant, must understand they represent a full constituency. It’s very hard for school board members to broaden their thinking. It takes a little time.”

What is more common, CEA’s Baca-Oehlert said, is for teachers to work in one school district and serve on the school board of the district in which they live.

One such teacher is Greg Piotraschke. He teaches music at a Jefferson County elementary school and serves on the Brighton 27J school board.

He doesn’t sleep much, but he said being a teacher and serving on a school board at the same time is rewarding.

“I truly do think that having the voice of people who are in the trenches and doing the work gives a lot of insight that the school board can take in,” Piotraschke said. “To shut out education professionals at the table when talking about education would be like shutting out doctors when talking about medical improvements.”

'a bit stuck'

Impasse declared in Denver teacher contract negotiations, prompting criticism from union

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

For the first time in recent history, Denver Public Schools has declared an impasse in ongoing negotiations with the teachers union over a contract governing teacher pay, workload and more.

The declaration means the two sides, which have been bargaining since January, will continue negotiations but with the aid of a mediator. In the past, DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have mutually agreed to mediation without one side having to call an impasse to trigger it, said DPS deputy general counsel and lead negotiator Michelle Berge.

But this year, the union refused. DCTA wanted to keep negotiations as public as possible and avoid private meetings with mediators, said DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern.

In 2014, Colorado voters approved a change to state law that requires contract negotiations between school districts and employee groups to be open to the public. The Denver teachers union has been taking advantage of the public sessions, inviting teachers to attend and talk to negotiators about their experiences and how various proposals would affect them.

Union leaders see the impasse as a way to silence that voice. Their belief stems in part from the fact that the district wants to use a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helps resolve collective bargaining disputes free of charge.

Although the bargaining sessions would still be public, the mediator could meet with each side separately in private to help them craft proposals, a spokesman for the service said.

That’s not true public bargaining, Kern said.

He said it’s been DCTA’s experience that “the two parties spend most of the time in two rooms apart and the mediator is shuttling back and forth between those two rooms and talking about issues without the public present.” The two sides’ proposals would be shared publicly, but the public would miss out on hearing the thought processes behind them, Kern said.

Even though the district had requested several times to move to mutually agreed-upon mediation, Kern said DCTA was “blindsided” by the impasse declaration a day after a bargaining session that the union felt was productive.

Berge said the district decided to call an impasse because “a number of challenging issues remain where we’re a bit stuck.” Those issues include how much teachers should be paid, the benefits they receive and how they should be evaluated.

The hope, Berge said, is that a mediator will help the two sides find common ground. The mediator DPS wants to use is someone whom the district and union have worked with before.

“Those of us who are involved, we are deep in on this,” Berge said. “Sometimes we’re emotional. It’s tough stuff. A mediator is an independent person who can step above that.”

The current teachers contract expires Aug. 31. The two sides are scheduled to meet again July 24 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver. There are two bargaining sessions set for late July and five scheduled for early and mid-August.


Tennessee’s ESSA plan gets solid marks in independent review

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Tennessee’s proposed plan for school accountability rates strong on measuring academic progress, but weak on counting all kids, according to an independent review released Tuesday by two education groups.

For the most part, the state landed in the upper middle of an analysis spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

Their panel of reviewers looked into components of state plans  ranging from academic standards to supporting schools under the new federal education law.

“Tennessee has submitted a very solid plan for which they should be proud,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. “Their ideas for ensuring academic progress and supporting schools are exemplary. We hope that other states will look for ways to incorporate these best practices.”

The groups brought together education experts with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds to analyze 17 state plans submitted this spring to the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Calling Tennessee’s plan “robust, transparent and comprehensive,” the review praised its “clear vision for reform” and its design of “district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators.”

The state received the highest rating possible for its proposal for tracking academic progress.

“Tennessee’s plan clearly values both growth and proficiency,” the review says. “Every school, even high-achieving ones, have growth and proficiency targets, and even the growth measure tracks student progress toward grade-level standards.”

The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is committed to supporting all students, especially those in historically underserved groups.

“When we say ‘all means all,’ that means much more than just accountability for subgroup performance,” McQueen said in a statement on the eve of the review’s release.

“The state’s accountability framework is designed to hold as many schools accountable for subgroup performance as possible while maintaining statistical reliability and validity, and it provides safeguards to ensure student information is protected,” she said. “In schools where there are a smaller number of students from a specific racial or ethnic category, we are combining them into one group. In doing so, we are actually able to hold schools accountable for more students — more than 43,000 black, Hispanic, and Native American students would be excluded from subgroup accountability if we did not use the combined subgroup.”

Congress passed ESSA in 2015 as a bipartisan law co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education. Signed by President Barack Obama, the law ended the No Child Left Behind era and redirected education policy back to the states.

States have since been working on their accountability plans, and Tennessee was among the first to submit a proposal. The state is now awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education, which would make it eligible for receiving federal funds.

For a breakdown of analysis on state plans including Tennessee’s, visit Check State Plans, an interactive website that spotlights the best elements of ESSA plans and those that fall short.