Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers spar over unions

Partisan differences about public employee unions surfaced Thursday during a House committee hearing on House Bill 11-1007, which would allow classified employees at Mesa State College in Grand Junction to opt out of the state personnel system.

The bill passed to the floor on a 7-6 vote by the House Economic and Business Development Committee, but not until after two hours of testimony and questions that at times highlighted the antipathy of some Republican lawmakers to public employee unions.

Colorado CapitolScott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS, bore some of the brunt of GOP questioning, with members asking him about use of member dues to fund political contributions.

Later, when questioning Mesa employee Tom Orrell, Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, referred to “Colorado Loses” and asked Orrell if the group had paid his travel expenses to Denver.

Orrell said no. He opposed the bill and said, “There is intense disagreement among classified staff about this bill.” Other Mesa employees testified in favor of the measure.

Some conservative GOP legislators have been highly critical of state employee groups ever since former Gov. Bill Ritter signed an executive order giving them a greater role, but not full union rights.

Mesa President Tim Foster said the idea of letting employees choose their system came from the college’s classified employees council.

If passed, the bill would allow classified employees to hold an election on whether they wanted to withdraw from the state system. If that was approved, individual employees could choose to stay with the state system or become exempt employees under the college’s own personnel system. Future employees would not have that choice and would become part of the college system.

PERA road show continues

This is the time of year when executives of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association make the rounds of key legislative committees, updating lawmakers on the system’s finances and other issues.

On Thursday it was the turn of the House and Senate finance committees to get the Power Point presentation by PERA Executive Director Meredith Williams.

Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.

Williams got questions from both Republicans and Democrats about PERA’s 30-year plan to reach financial solvency, particularly the plan’s assumption that system investments will yield an average 8 percent return over that time period. The PERA board reviews the expected rate of return every year.

Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, wanted to know the details of the projections that led the PERA board to adopt the 8 percent assumption for 2011. Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, asked if retiree benefits would have to be reduced if the 8 percent assumption is scaled back.

Williams circled around that question, saying that “will require an increase in revenues flowing to the system or a decrease in benefit liabilities,” adding that “reducing benefit liabilities is a fairly difficult undertaking” because of legal issues.

PERA and the state are facing legal issues over Senate Bill 10-001, the pension rescue legislation passed last year. A key feature of the law reduced retiree cost-of-living adjustments to 0 last year and to 2 percent this year. The adjustments had been 3.5 percent, and a group of retirees have sued, claiming the change violates the contracts clauses of both the federal and state constitutions.

Greg Smith, PERA general counsel, told lawmakers that the case is moving slowly. He noted trial is set for February 2012 and that it “probably will be three to five years realistically to get a resolution from the [state] Supreme Court.”

Once it is decided, “This is going to be a very significant case from a nationwide perspective,” Smith said.

The PERA officials told the committee that investments had a 17 percent rate of return in 2009 and will have higher than 8 percent for 2010, after last year’s earning are finally calculated next spring.

See this story for what PERA execs told the JBC on Jan. 5 and this presentation from PERA.

In other news

Another piece of charter school legislation, House Bill 11-1089, was introduced in the House Thursday. The bill would expands the types of federal grants for which a charter school can apply without the permission of its local school board, but schools couldn’t apply for grants made available under federal special education law. The State Charter School Institute would be the oversight agency.

The bill would expand a 2010 law that gave charters more freedom to apply for grants.

The bill has 19 Republican sponsors, most of them in the House, Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, are the prime sponsors.

The Senate Education Committee voted 8-0 to pass both Senate Bill 11-029 and Senate Joint Resolution 11-004. The bill would change reporting and transparency requirements for the State Land Board, and the resolution would add the House and Senate education committees to the list of legislative panels to which the board reports.

The board manages state school trust lands, which provides funds for the Build Excellent Schools Today construction program and a small amount of money for general state school support. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is the main promoter of the measures, which are supported by the land board.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: