Who Is In Charge

Ed bills jump first hurdle

Legislative leaders Tuesday cleared six proposed education bills for introduction in the 2012 legislature, but they’ve all got a long way to go, especially two of the more interesting ones.

Pencil on test paperThe bills were proposed by three legislative study committees and therefore required approval of Legislative Council, the leadership group that handles various administrative tasks for the General Assembly.

Any bill approved by the council has to go through the full legislative process after the session starts in January so runs the same risks as any bill. The advantage of council approved bills is that they don’t count against the five-bill limit imposed on legislators.

The council usually approves bills unless members feel a proposal doesn’t fit under a committee’s stated assignment. But, the council review process sometimes provides hints of questions about support for and potential weaknesses of individual bills.

Here’s a rundown on what happened Tuesday, organized by study committee.

Educational Success Task Force

This group, a hybrid legislator-citizen group, proposed four bills. (See this Education News Colorado story for details.) All were approved by the council with only a couple of stray no votes on two bills.

The most interesting proposal in the package is a bill pushed by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, that would require school districts to administer the Accuplacer test at least once high school students.

King’s proposal would have the state pay for the tests, but he hasn’t come up with a source of money yet. Funding for a new program could be tough next year, and King publicly said for the first time Tuesday “We may have to scale this back to a pilot program.”

The other three bills approved would direct development of a system for adult students to gain academic credit for work experience, create a way for some students to earn associate degrees with credits earned at four-year colleges and encourage school districts to develop programs to identify middle school students who are lagging behind and provide help for them. (See task force webpage for links to bill texts.)

Legislative Task Force to Study School discipline

This panel of lawmakers and education, advocacy and law enforcement representatives forwarded only one bill, a proposed overhaul of state laws related to school discipline. The overall thrust of the measure is to roll back the zero tolerance philosophy that has dominated the subject in recent years.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton / File photo

But, some council members raised concerns after panel chair Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, noted that the measure isn’t in final form and that members still are meeting with interest group representatives to hammer out another version. (See this EdNews story about the panel’s final meeting.)

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was worried that the final version of the bill might end up exceeding the task force’s assignment.

The council went back and forth about whether a decision could be delayed but eventually voted and approved the proposed bill 11-7. All the no votes were Republicans.

Part of the bill’s back-story is that some district and administration interests aren’t happy with all of its provisions, and that’s part of the continuing negotiations Newell mentioned.

She told the council she expects “to come to the first committee [hearing] with a hefty amendment.”

Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Commission

This all-legislator panel is proposing a bill that would create a new office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating several programs and funding sources now scattered across multiple state departments. (Read bill text.)

The bill actually originated with an executive branch advisory group, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, and the idea is a legislative priority for the Hickenlooper administration. The state’s recently filed application for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds includes a promise to consolidate disparate programs.

Legislative Council approved the bill 13-5. All the no votes were Republicans. Even though she voted for the bill, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County, said she believes the new agency might be better placed in the Department of Public Health and Environment rather than in human services.

Legislation also in the air at Leadership Council

Third-grade literacy, another education issue that’s expected to be key during the 2012 session, was a central part of the discussion earlier Tuesday at the second meeting of the governor’s Education Leadership Council.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, is planning to introduce legislation that, among other things, require that some third graders be held back if they don’t meet certain standards of literacy.

Improving reading performance by third graders also is a key 2012 initiative for the Hickenlooper administration and some education interest groups.

Holding students back is a touchy subject for many educators, and some of that concern was reflected in the council discussion.

Five council members gave brief presentations on the issue before general discussion opened up.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, both expressed support for the idea, citing the experience of a 10-year-old program in Florida.

Watney said nearly 30 percent of Colorado third graders score below proficient on CSAP reading tests and that 8-10 percent of third graders are functionally illiterate.

She said the children who are held back shouldn’t be put through the same third-grade curriculum a second time but need other support, a view echoed by several council members.

Christine Scanlan
Christine Scanlan / File photo

Christine Scanlan, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “We are aware of the competing data that is out there” about holding students back, “and we know the fiscal impact is real.” She also noted the difficulties such a policy could create for small districts.

“Retention would be a last resort,” Scanlan said. “I think Tom [Massey] is in the same place.” (Massey is a member of the council but wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the council, said Hickenlooper “doesn’t yet have a position on this.”

Council member Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, commented that “intervention in the third grade is about four years too late,” saying children with language and reading problems need to be identified and helped much earlier.

Deputy Education Commissioner Diana Sirko said about 2.4 percent of Colorado students currently are held back each year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade. “The results are mixed on those.” Sirko attended the meeting as an observer.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”