The Other 60 Percent

AFT prez sees best, worst in DPS, Dougco

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, viewed her visit to Colorado on Wednesday as a kind of tale of two cities, with lots of Dickensian overtones.

AFT president Randi Weingarten and members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, who helped design an incentive plan with the help of a union grant.

On the one hand, there was her lunchtime visit to Denver’s Cole Arts & Science Academy, where she met with members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. The Denver union received an AFT Innovation Fund grant last year to create a model employee incentive pay program called “The Good Food! Incentive Project” to reinforce the district’s nutrition and wellness efforts to combat obesity among schoolchildren.

The pay-for-performance system was jointly designed by labor and management, and rewards school lunchroom workers for making meals so enticing and nutritious that more youngsters will eat them. The program is being piloted in DPS this year and, if successful, may be replicated by other districts nationwide.

It was all lovey-dovey and harmonious as Weingarten joined representatives from both labor and management around a Cole lunchroom table as they dined on the same menu items students were having – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fruit, salad, a whole-grain roll and low-fat milk. This was after Weingarten, a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-union activist, took a turn serving students on the lunch line.

‘Political and malevolent’ school board draws her wrath

But then the subject of Douglas County came up, and Weingarten turned into the street fighter she’s noted for being. She had harsh words for Douglas County district leadership.

Strong words
  • Weingarten’s visit prompted a letter from state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, a staunch supporter of Dougco’s school board: “On the issue of school reform, Ms. Weingarten and her union are decidedly on the wrong side of history.” Read the full letter.

“This is what’s infuriating to me,” said Weingarten. “Here we have Denver, which took the germ of an idea and it has blossomed into this amazing thing with workers and management re-envisioning the school kitchen.

“And across the border is Douglas County, where the school board is only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”

Since the 2009 elections brought a conservative majority to the school board, relations between the board and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – which has represented the district’s teachers for more than 40 years – have dramatically deteriorated.

Dougco’s 3,300 teachers are now working without a union contract after public negotiations stalled and the 2011-12 contract expired July 1. That makes Douglas County the largest district in the state in which teachers are working without a collective bargaining agreement.

There have been disputes over issues such as whether the district would continue to pay half the costs of the union’s staff salaries and about deducting union dues from teachers paychecks. Both practices have now stopped.

Last month, board members backed off a plan to put three measures on the November ballot that would have severed all district-union ties, if approved. But they did make changes in policy that have similar effects.

“They took something that was collaborative for 20 years and destroyed it,” said DCFT president Brenda Smith, who accompanied Weingarten on her visit. “They have an absolute political agenda.”

Dougco official says Weingarten visit shows union agenda

Douglas County school board President John Carson said Weingarten’s visit and her comments about the district “demonstrate what we’ve been arguing for the last year.”

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”
– John Carson, Dougco board

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers really has its strings pulled by the national union in Washington, D.C., and that’s demonstrated by the fact that that’s where they send the majority of their union dues, to the national union for politics,” Carson said. “The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”

Weingarten was to meet with Gov. John Hickenlooper after leaving Cole, then spend the late afternoon at an AFL-CIO union phone bank, meeting with workers and local activists and making calls to discuss with voters what’s at stake for them in the November election.

Dougco union leaders have asked the state to intervene in the district-union issues, and both Dougco district and union officials have previously met with Hickenlooper to discuss the matter.

“We feel that the important thing here is that the voters of Douglas County and the elected representatives of Douglas County make the ultimate decisions concerning the school district and the education of Douglas County kids,” Carson said.

That said, “we’re interested in working with Gov. Hickenlooper on education reform and we feel we agree on many things,” Carson added. “We particularly agree on the need to increase the performance of our schools and to reward great teachers, so we look forward to working with him on areas where we agree.”

Weingarten promised, “The AFT is in this for the long haul.

“This is not my first trip to Colorado, and it won’t be my last,” she said. “I’m here to say to Douglas County, ‘What the heck are you doing? And why are you doing this?’ They are attempting to destroy the public education system. It is absolute political machination.”

But she had nothing but praise for the Denver pay-for-performance experiment.

“To see this kind of engagement is incredible,” she said. “When I taught full-time, my administrative duty was being in the lunchroom. The difference between my lunchroom and this, well, it’s amazing. This really shows tremendous respect.”

Lunchroom workers say they’re more engaged

Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Denver’s Morey Middle School, served on the team that designed the incentive program.

Weingarten, a former classroom teacher, took a turn serving students on the lunch line at Cole Arts & Science Academy in Denver.

“We thought it would be easy when we started, but oh my goodness … ” she said. She said the team met every week for an entire year to craft the program, which provides financial bonuses to lunchroom workers based on individual performance, school performance and district performance in meeting certain targets.

“The amount of the bonus all depends on us,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary, who was also on the design team. “We’re working now as a team more. We understand our responsibilities more in-depth. In the past, someone might have said, ‘Oh, that’s a manager’s job.’ But now everyone is pitching in. And we’re working more in marketing to get the kids involved.”

Denver has been a leader among Colorado school districts in the move to scratch cooking, salad bars and school gardens. The district has also embraced breakfast-in-the-classroom, which it plans to eventually roll out to all Denver schools. Some of the schools participate in a federally-funded program to deliver a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable to every student, every day in their classroom.

“It’s a lot of work, but often, we’re the first person a child sees in the morning,” said Torres. “And sometimes, what they say makes me cry. I’ve heard them say ‘This is the first food I’ve had since Friday,’ or ‘I just had popcorn for dinner.’”

Young said the number of breakfasts she serves every morning at Morey has jumped from 160 to 200 when breakfast was served in the cafeteria to 600 now that it is served in the classroom.

DPS lunch workers: No pushback to healthier foods now

Recent national media reports have depicted students pushing back against the healthier school food requirements mandated by Congress this fall.

But Denver lunchroom workers say the pushback against the new school nutrition guidelines isn’t much of an issue in DPS.

“We got a jump on that. We started this a long time ago,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary. “We’re training our students early now. A salad bar is great because they get to decide what to take, and they eat what they take. They begin to realize at a young age what foods have more nutrition.

“I think it’s becoming more stylish for students to eat a salad now. Our salad bars are so colorful, with all those different mixtures of lettuce, and our wonderful selection of fresh fruits.”

Added Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Morey Middle School: “And those seventh- and eighth-grade girls who are thinking of becoming anorexic, they can still eat a nutritious salad. And the boys who are always starving can go back again and again to the salad bar. And they do.”

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.