Future of Schools

Q&A with Dougco’s newest board member

EdNews Colorado reporter Julie Poppen recently sat down with the newest member of the Douglas County school board. Here’s what Carrie Mendoza had to say about why she ran for the board and what she hopes to accomplish. Mendoza was unanimously approved to fill the seat vacated when Dan Gerken abruptly resigned in January. 

EdNews: Tell us about your background.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Carrie Mendoza, second from left, is the newest member of the Douglas County school board.

Mendoza: I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka and attended New Trier High School, which ranks among the nation’s top high schools. I attended college at Tufts and studied art history. I decided to go home to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in art history at the University of Chicago. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was interested in being a curator, but I had a growing desire to go to medical school. I figured if I didn’t do that I’d always wonder. Having an art background, I needed to build the science side of  my transcript to I took science classes at night while working. I ended up becoming a medical student at the University of Chicago. I was matched for a residency at Denver Health. That’s how I ended up here.  After that, it wasn’t enough. You can see I’m an addict of education. I did a fellowship in medical toxicology in which I researched overdoses and drug effects at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center. Now I am a partner with a group of physicians affiliated with Porter Hospital. I started with this group in 2006.

EdNews: What strengths and skills do you bring to the board?

Mendoza: I feel like I have a personal understanding of excellent, high quality schools, the rigor of studying, the rigor of high expectations. Having a culture of high expectations is so critical.  My father always told me I was lucky to be a woman at this time because I could do whatever I wanted to do. That’s what I would like for all kids. If you don’t let them strive to their full potential it’s a disservice to them and society at large.

EdNews: How did you meet your husband, Myles Mendoza, a noted figure in ed reform circles here?

Mendoza: We met at a dog park in Chicago. I knew when I met him I was coming to Denver. We were engaged before we left. We now have three sons, ages 9, 7, and 5. They attend the American Academy Charter School. It’s one of the excellent charter schools in the district.

EdNews: Is that how you got involved with Douglas County schools?

Mendoza: I started by volunteering in the classroom. One of the nice things about charter schools is they do rely on the parent population to get involved. It’s a part of the environment.

EdNews: Why did you throw your name in the hat for a seat on the board?

Mendoza: The opportunity presented itself. I am very interested in education policy. The timing in my life worked out. I’m mid-career and in emergency medicine. The list of training and long hours is over. I have more flexibility in my schedule now that I’m a full partner in my practice. The timing was such that this is something that could be really interesting to help impact my own children’s education and other kids in the district.

EdNews: Where do you stand on the district’s controversial Choice Scholarship Program, a voucher system, which remains in legal limbo?

Mendoza: I think it’s great what they have done. I totally support it. That’s one reason I thought of applying. I do feel like this is really symbiotic. I feel like I’m working with people who have similar beliefs. I’m very excited about that. It takes a lot of courage to move forward in a large system that historically has been about something else. I’m excited to be part of something that has a state and national presence.

EdNews: How will you handle the spats that flare up between the board, which is unified in its approach to school reform, and certain segments of the Dougco community, including the teachers’ union, which is very critical of the district and school board.

Mendoza: I understand how people with different viewpoints could feel very passionately about these issues. Changing a system you’re used to can be really scary. A lot of times these things come from fear of changes. I think the board has done a great job being transparent and open. You need to give people a voice. There will always be people who disagree. That is what our country is based on. We need to be open and let them express themselves. I work in a hospital in a highly charged environment. I have a thick skin. I am firm about what my principles are and what I think is important in my life.

EdNews: What do you think of the pay-for-performance proposal for teachers?

Mendoza: I support what the board is doing to try to strengthen and honor excellent teachers and strengthen teacher performance. Having great teachers in the classroom is what really makes the difference. Thirty percent of my pay is based on performance. We need to reward those who are going above and beyond and are excellent in the practice.

EdNews: How do you feel about the school finance reform bill being debated in the legislature?

Mendoza: The system is so complex. It’s a challenge for Sen. Johnston or anyone else to try to adjust it. If it would make it more disparate and take money away from the county I live in then I don’t support that. More money doesn’t always equal better. Doubling down on a system that takes that approach doesn’t seem logical to me.

Sen. Johnston did a good job on teacher effectiveness. All that was a great and huge step in the right direction, but trying to take that great work and make it a reason we have to put more money in the system, because we can’t measure effectiveness because we don’t have more money….I don’t think that’s true. Down here we’re working on a pilot. You don’t have to have more money to do all that. I do not support putting more money in a broken system. If that’s how the bill is shaping up I don’t think it’s a prudent approach.

EdNews: What are changes you’d like to see in Dougco schools?

Mendoza: One of the things that could be worked on is expanding more choice. I have friends who have been on a (school) lottery for years. I wish there was more opportunity for them. We need to expand choice and strengthen all the schools.  We need to be perfecting pay-for-performance. How can we do this the best, and be the fairest for the teachers? It’s going to be a work in progress. The board has done a great job piloting their tools and just continuing to move forward on that.

EdNews: If you had all the money you needed and no limitations, how would you reshape the American school system?

Mendoza: I think the system here now in Douglas County has the principles correct. It would be ideal if we could have money follow kids directly, not filtered through a giant bureaucracy that takes it and distributes it, and make sure that parents really had true choice to take that money and use it to decide what’s best for their children. We also need to compare our educational system with those in other states and countries. We’re in a global economy. So, I believe in choice and excellence for the kid and for the teachers and a global vision.

EdNews: So your husband worked for Democrats for Education Reform for a while. You are a Republican. What topics do you discuss at the dinner table?

Mendoza: We’re independent thinkers. We’re different people. The best analogy is that we’re the James Carville/Mary Matalin of local Colorado politics. I’m more conservative than Myles but he’s done a lot of great work and had a lot of great exposure to a lot of things. I learn from him. He learns from me too.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.