Future of Schools

Dougco delays decision on resolution

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Tuesday night postponed consideration of a resolution that states former employees should not seek a seat on the board for at least a year after leaving the district.

Susan Meek at a school board canddiate forum in September.
Susan Meek at a candidate forum in September.

The motion is generating criticism from those who see it as a direct attack on Susan Meek, the former district communications director who ran for school board in last month’s election, and on the rights of employees.

Brenda Smith, the president of the Douglas County teachers’ union who has largely stayed out of the district’s heated voucher battles, issued a news release condemning the proposed resolution.

“Not only is this abuse of power, it shows how misguided the work of the board has become,” Smith said. “Our district has been nationally recognized for collaboration on behalf of children, but the current board seems more focused on electioneering than the issues that will help all children in the Douglas County Schools at this critical time.

“Our members have focused on improving the education of our students for years, but this board is more concerned with making sure their position is secure.”

Meek, whose campaign criticized the board’s focus on vouchers during a budget crisis and who questioned the partisanship of Republican-backed board candidates, issued a letter to the community Tuesday that said board members “are looking to limit your personal liberty and quash the voice of the very people they oversee.”

Meek attended Tuesday night’s meeting but did not address the board after members announced they were delaying consideration of the resolution until January, after board president John Carson returns from vacation.

A board resolution is not legally enforceable and is instead considered a public statement, said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney. School boards across Colorado pass various resolutions each year to express their support for – or disapproval of – proposed laws or to weigh in on other topics.

Dougco’s school board, for example, is one of the few in the state to pass resolutions opposing the plaintiffs’ arguments in the Lobato school funding lawsuit.

Dan Gerken, the board’s vice president, said he does not remember when board members first discussed the proposed resolution, now dubbed the “anti-Susan Meek resolution” by some.

But he said it is part of an overhaul of board ethics and not an attack on any individual.

“We’re certainly not accusing Susan Meek of having done anything wrong,” Gerken said. Instead, he said, “I don’t think we want to have a person employed by the district who has one foot in the district and one foot in campaign mode.”

A proposed policy that would prevent board members from working for the district for one year after they leave the board also was delayed Tuesday night. The proposed policy, which would be enforceable if adopted, also would apply to a board member’s immediate family.

Meek was one of three candidates who sought to represent District A on the board. She eschewed political backing during her campaign and filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office questioning the Republican Party’s endorsement of three candidates, including one of her opponents, Craig Richardson, in the non-partisan race. Richardson won the seat.

When Meek left the district in March, months before she announced her candidacy, she was publicly praised by school board members at her last board meeting as a staff member. But words were considerably sharper during the campaign when Meek discussed her stance against vouchers.

“Former employees who choose to continue to serve the Douglas County schools, students and the community have every right to do so,” Meek said Tuesday in her letter to the community. “Employees and former employees have every right to have a voice and to be heard.”

Partial text of proposed board resolution on former district employees

  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education acknowledges that the appearance of a “revolving door” between district employment and service on the Board of Directors undermines the public’s trust and confidence …
  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education, in wanting to provide a “safe harbor” for former employee participation on the Board expresses itself now, outside of an election season, and nearly two years before the next election, by providing a normative guideline …
  • THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest during periods of employment by employees later seeking to serve on the Board, and in order to provide the greatest level of trust, confidence and integrity in the decisions of the Board of Directors, the Board expresses its support for the proposition that, as a norm of ethical conduct, no employee should file with the Colorado Secretary of State a candidate affidavit indicating an intention to run for the Office of Director of the Board of Education for at least one year immediately after termination of the employee’s service to the district.
  • BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that if a district employee fails to comply with this normative expectation, the Board encourages opponents of any such former employee in any race for office of Director of the Board of Education to cite this resolution in future campaigns …

Text of proposed board policy on former board members

  • “The District shall not consider an application for employment from any former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the director’s service on the board.
  • “In addition, no former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director shall receive compensation or fees for services directly from the district, or indirectly from a person or entity doing business with the district, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the of the director’s service on the board.”

Full text of proposed resolution and full text of proposed policy


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”