Colorado

Schomp, Johnson emphasize differences over mill levy, school choice

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Central Denver school board candidates Meg Schomp and Michael Johnson went one-on-one Wednesday night, throwing into relief their differences over everything from the school board’s role in community engagement to school choice to the oversight of 2012’s bond and mill levy funding.

“There’s a real choice here,” Johnson said. “Meg and I have some real differences.”

The debate was the first in a series sponsored by the advocacy group A+ Denver, along with EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using his own versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.

Each candidate used the debate to emphasize the priorities of their campaign: Schomp focused on community engagement and broadening the curriculum beyond the basics of math and reading, while Johnson advocated for increased school choice and greater school-level control over budgets and programming.

In ten years, Johnson said, he wants the district to graduate every student either prepared to go to college without remediation or ready to enter a career path.

“I think we need to raise our expectations, we need to raise our standards,” Johnson said.

Schomp said that vision needed to be made broader, to ensure that students were not only equipped with the basic academic skills but also with a strong basis in subjects like art and civics.

“I think that college and career readiness are extremely important, but I also think there are other elements that are important for a child’s success in life,” Schomp said.

Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed over the course of the debate:

School choice

Schomp said that her preference is to create a system where the first option for families is to have an excellent neighborhood school that their children can walk to and from.

“I support alternative options for our children,” Schomp said, noting her own child’s enrollment at the Denver Green School, which is an innovation school. “However, I don’t support the possibility of our neighborhood schools being starved as a result of it.”

Schomp argued that the proliferation of charter schools and district-run “innovation” schools that have exemptions from certain district requirements are hurting traditional schools’ ability to function.

“When we’re giving innovation schools and charter schools some latitudes that we don’t give our traditional schools, that’s not a fair playing field,” Schomp said.

Johnson replied that the solution to that problem is to give neighborhood schools the same kind of bureaucratic freedom enjoyed by charter and innovation schools.

“I’d like to see the neighborhood schools have the same kind of flexibility in organizing their day and how they run their schools,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that his priority is to give families access to whatever school program works best for their student, a goal that he said requires the expansion of school choice.

“I would like for us to come as close as we can to have an individualized education plan for every child,” Johnson said.

Community engagement

Both candidates agreed that the district should do a better job engaging families and community members, but they articulated slightly different approaches to how school board members should move to the front lines.

“I think that parents too often have been engaged in problems with our schools too late,” Schomp said. “We don’t have early and often engagement. Our families at times find it hard to access the district.”

As a solution, Schomp proposed that the school board have quarterly meetings outside of the district’s administrative buildings.

“I like that idea,” Johnson responded, “But I think that the first job for community outreach is the elected school board members. I think it’s our obligation to reach out to the community; I think it’s our obligation to go to PTA meetings.”

Stokols asked what the candidates thought the board should do to help schools that are struggling and losing students. In response, Johnson raised an idea that he would emphasize throughout the evening: pushing more decision-making down to the school level.

“Give all the local schools more autonomy so they can develop a program that works well for the community,” Johnson said. “I think if we got rid of the rigid, top-down rules that controls what we do on a daily basis, that would make a big difference.”

Bond and mill levy oversight

Disagreement over the merits of the $466 million bond issue and $49 million property tax measure that passed last year prompted some of the liveliest exchanges of the debate.

Johnson, who helped design and campaign for the mill levy and bond and who currently serves as the co-chair of the levy’s oversight committee, described the measures as an essential step to bring to Denver’s schools the type of arts, physical education and enrichment activities that Schomp argued schools need.

“I wonder how you can run for the school board having opposed that funding,” Johnson said.

Schomp, however, was a prominent critic of the measures, and characterized the design and implementation of them as lacking in community involvement and oversight.

“If I felt it was a good bond, I would support it,” she said. “And I would like to see a new bond.”

Amendment 66

Both candidates said they support the proposed $950 million tax increase for education.

Teacher evaluations

Johnson is a strong proponent of the evaluation plan, known as LEAP, that Denver is developing, while Schomp expressed reservations about the weight that the evaluation system places on students’ standardized test scores.

“At this point we are evaluating teachers based on achievement tests that teachers cannot control the factors for,” Schomp said, noting that the results of tests are often influenced by socioeconomic factors such as whether a child has eaten on the day of the exam.

Schomp also expressed concern about the classroom experience level of LEAP’s peer evaluators and principals, arguing that often the evaluators have spent less time in classrooms than the teachers they are rating.

Johnson downplayed those concerns, arguing that the results of the evaluation system has been instrumental in helping support teachers as they improve their practice.

“We’ve developed a system that has buy-in from teachers,” he said. “It’s very fair.”

The next debate, featuring the candidates for the at-large seat, will be held next Thursday, September 26. If you have a question for the candidates, submit it here.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede