Nine claims made in the Jefferson County school board recall explained

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. (Hayleigh Colombo / Chalkbeat)

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 a teacher “sick out.” (Nicholas Garcia )

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. (Nicholas Garcia )

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.