First Person

Voices: Thank you, Jeffco voters

Jeffco Public Schools board President Lesley Dahlkemper offers a heartfelt thanks to voters who opened their wallets to support Outdoor Lab, teacher-librarians, instrumental music and more.

Voters in Jefferson County sent a strong message on Tuesday when 58 percent approved issue 3A and 54 percent backed 3B.

Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures watched election returns at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood Tuesday night. Both measures passed, the first tax increases to pass for the district since 2004. Photo / Joe Mahoney

These are huge wins – for our kids and our community. Great schools benefit all of us. They improve our quality of life, attract businesses and protect our property values. Most importantly, they educate future citizens who one day will cast their own votes.

3A will generate $39 million each year to maintain classroom size, restore two days of school and ensure students have access to instrumental music, teacher-librarians, electives and Outdoor Lab. 3B will provide $99 million in funds for repairs to aging schools.

For the average Jeffco homeowner, these measures cost $36 a year – a great value considering the return on investment. Our students outperformed the state in all grade levels and content areas on 2012 state tests. Eighty percent of Jeffco third-graders read at or above grade level. Our high school graduation rates tie for second in the nation among the 50 largest school districts, according to Education Week. More Jeffco students are pursuing postsecondary education. The class of 2012 earned $54 million in college scholarships.

Jeffco Schools’ commitment to student achievement has attracted a large federal grant that allows us to test new ways to support and pay teachers who get results for students. This work is now in its second year of implementation in 20 pilot schools across the district.

We leverage every taxpayer dollar toward student success. But our schools have struggled over the last three years to manage more than $78 million in state funding cuts without hurting kids. We have reduced costs, closed underenrolled schools, trimmed staff, streamlined administration and cut compensation.

Jeffco Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado, received $761 less per student this school year than it did in 2009. We’re not alone. School districts across Colorado have far fewer dollars to educate students, underscoring the importance of identifying a long-term, statewide funding solution for K-12 education and other essential public services.

In Jeffco, the win for 3A and 3B demonstrates what a community can accomplish when it truly puts children first. Thousands of volunteers came forward to help:

  • The teacher-librarian who took out a $7,000 loan to wrap his RV in 3A and 3B banners;
  • The retired Realtor who waved signs as morning commuters whizzed by;
  • The music teacher who organized a flash mob;
  • Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, school board members and others who spoke to countless service clubs, PTA groups and anyone else willing to listen;
  • Chambers of commerce, mayors and other Jeffco leaders who publicly endorsed 3A and 3B.

Despite organized and funded opposition, Jeffco voters refused to buy in to misinformation spread by critics. Opponents claimed 3A funds would go to educators’ retirement accounts. Not true. PERA increases are mandated by the state, and Jeffco Public Schools already has budgeted for those increases – regardless of the passage of 3A.

Opponents also said the district would receive a $60 million windfall in state funding next year. That’s not true, either. The governor’s latest budget proposal shows Jeffco Schools would likely receive $9.8 million more next year. However, we have no idea what the final number is until the Legislature approves the budget next May. In fact, just prior to the release of the governor’s budget, Colorado’s education commissioner told Jeffco Schools to budget for flat funding.

Today, we get back to work analyzing student achievement data, identifying classroom strategies that get results and making sure our graduates are ready for college, the workforce and life.

But we will savor the support of a community that came together on Tuesday to ensure every child in Jeffco receives a great education, and we will be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars Jeffco voters have entrusted to us.

On behalf of the Jeffco school board members who voted to place these measures on the ballot, thank you, Jeffco voters, for believing in our kids and the teachers, principals and support staff who touch their lives every day. Our deepest gratitude goes to Citizens for Jeffco Schools, co-chaired by Kelly Johnson and Jonna Levine, and the volunteers who worked diligently to ensure these measures were successful.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.