Analysis

Jeffco contract draft: big on site-based decisions, short on teacher evaluation specifics

New York's Board of Regents voted in committee Monday to replace the Common Core standards with the "Next Generation Learning Standards."

Jeffco Public Schools officials Friday released a 25-page draft contract for its teachers union that puts more decision-making in the hands of school leaders and teams of teachers, lacks details on some of the district’s most important efforts, limits some of the historic privileges of the union, and lasts for less than a year.

The document, which was sent to the Jefferson County Education Association and reporters Friday morning, is meant to focus the work of the committee tasked with creating a new contract, the district’s lawyer stressed. The bargaining teams have until Aug. 31 before the current contract expires.

But the document, which lawyer and lead negotiator for Jeffco Jim Branum has been working on for months behind the scenes, is the most comprehensive work to date to come out of negotiations. JCEA agreed to discuss the document’s contents at 4 p.m., Monday. The association might also bring specific language of its own.

We spent today comparing and contrasting Branum’s document to the current master agreement between Jeffco and JCEA. Here are a few of the noteworthy items we found:

The proposed document is one-fifth the size of the current contract.

A priority for the district is to streamline the contract. Officials suggested early in the process that some provisions were out-of-date and could be struck all together while others could be moved to an employee handbook.

This draft accomplishes that goal.

A side-by-side comparison found 27 different sections of the current contract either no longer exist or have been collapsed into broader sections. Some of those sections include topics on academic freedom and what happens if classroom materials are challenged.

While the contract is a quicker read, many of the sections are short on specifics. For example, the current contract spells classroom limits and how extra unpaid hours teachers may be required to work are to be used. The proposed contract leaves those decisions to individual school committees.

Jeffco removes specific language about evaluation process.

While the details about how teachers are evaluated exist in a policy that’s separate from both the current contract and the new draft, the current contract does include some specific language about how many observations a teacher is to receive and by when.

That’s not the case in Branum’s draft. Instead, the contract says the evaluation system and process will be “clearly defined and communicated to” teachers.

This point is likely going to be a huge rallying cry for the JCEA, maybe even more so than pay increases. Armed with an independent report that found the district’s evaluation system isn’t applied equally across the district, the union has been pushing for evaluation reform. They want stricter guidelines and more training for observers — not less.

While it’s completely possible for both stricter guidelines and more training to co-exist outside of a contract, JCEA is looking to codify as much as it can to provide its teachers with assurances and predictability given the increasing stakes of evaluations.

The contract would expire on June 30, 2016.

Since 1992, the district’s contract with its teachers has ended on Aug. 31, well after the start of the school year. (In earlier years, the contract ran from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.)

The end of summer deadline gave teachers and the district time to workout their issues over a few months without the stress of the classroom.

It’s unclear why the district has proposed this change, other than maybe it wanted to align its contract to its fiscal year that ends June 30.

It’s also unusual for the district to propose only a one year extension of the agreement. Contracts have also historically have been multiyear agreements for many cycles.

District officials declined to explain this change saying, “we’ll be discussing the contract at the bargaining table.”

The union gets a win — for now — in seniority rights for displaced teachers.

One of the earliest signs of tension during this year’s negotiations was around how schools should decide which teachers to fire if their student population decreases.

The union believes teachers with more years in the classroom should get to stay. The district team believed these kinds of personnel decisions should be based on evaluations, not years in the classroom. The two sides dropped the topic in an effort to find common ground on less contentious issues.

For the moment, JCEA’s preferred method of choosing which teachers stay and which go when a school has to cut staff — seniority — remains in the contract. But that’s likely not going to sit well with the district’s conservative school board majority that has pushed evaluations as a decision making tool.

The union’s rights have been scaled back.

Many of the historic rights the union has been given in its teachers contract don’t exist in Branum’s draft.

For example, the union’s right to use school buildings, free of charge is gone. The union’s right to post information on employee bulletin boards? That’s gone too. Also, JCEA is going to have make more trips to Office Depot. The proposed contract doesn’t allow JCEA to order office supplies from the district’s vendors.

What is preserved? one of the first sections in the district’s proposed contract is the recognition of JCEA as the exclusive representative of teachers. That might rub some of the board’s conservative majority the wrong way.

There are no new details on teacher raises.

Any hope for a more robust system to determine teacher raises remain unaddressed in this proposal.

Since the district abandoned the traditional salary schedule last fall, in lieu of a plan linked only to teacher evaluations, some have hoped for a different system. Earlier this spring, the union presented a plan that rewarded teachers with raises for a variety of things including advanced degrees, leadership roles, and time in the classroom.

Not only does none of that exist in Branum’s draft, but under today’s proposal, teacher salaries remain the same until a percentage increase linked to evaluations can be agreed to by the bargaining teams.

How big of a fight will a new system to determine teacher raises be for JCEA given the battles on other fronts? That’s hard to say.

Meet your new ‘professional problem solving committee’ (whatever that is).

Under the new contract language, schools will be required to establish a “professional problem solving committee.” This group will be made up of at least three teachers selected by the school’s staff and administration. The panel will be called upon to help mitigate conflict among staff.

It’s not clear what kind of disputes this group might be tasked with. What we do know is that this group won’t replace a formal human-resource grievance process because that’s outlined elsewhere.

different voices

Jeffco superintendent extends listening tour through event targeting multilingual community

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass talks to community members at Arvada K-8 during a Many Voices event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In an extension of his district tour, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass on Monday answered questions about biliteracy, equity gaps and school financing in the first of three “many voices” events.

The events are meant to give the multilingual and non English-speaking community an opportunity to speak out on issues. About 35 people showed at the auditorium at Arvada K-8 Monday, including a handful who listened to Glass through a translator on a headset.

Glass said he heard more questions about equity and language issues than he had on previous stops on his tour to get acquainted with different parts of the sprawling, 86,000-student district. Roughly 10.5 percent of Jeffco residents speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.

When Glass was hired, and as he moved into the position, he said he would make equity issues a priority. He often talks about disparities in Jeffco school buildings, with some in desperate need of updates and others that are “fantastic” — and did again Monday.

He also answered a question — familiar to many Colorado superintendents — about why marijuana tax revenues aren’t helping with significant building needs.

One man asked if Glass was interested in offering Jeffco students a biliteracy seal, an endorsement that proves graduates have mastered two languages. Glass, as leader of Eagle County schools, helped that district become one of the first in the state to offer the seal.

“I think it has a positive aspect, just cognitively,” Glass said. “And I think it’s a huge advantage when kids go out into the workforce. I think we should move this forward.”

Glass also mentioned he’s looking into different ways schools might address students’ differing needs. He cited community school models, which bring in community organizations to help provide health care and other services to students and student-based budgeting, which involves allocating more or less money to certain students depending on need, following them to whichever school they attend. But Glass said the key is not to lower expectations.

When a woman asked what he’s noticed visiting Jeffco schools, Glass said he’s seen a lot of hard work and professional talent. But he said he has also seen a lot of worksheets.

He told the group he’d like to see better student engagement through more hands-on learning.

A mom of a kindergartener told Glass she wanted more school communication to know what her student is learning and how well he is doing. Glass agreed.

“That needs to be a priority for us is how we view our partnership with our parents,” Glass said.

At the end of the event, Glass noted similarities in the hour-long discussion and previous ones he hosted.

“The thing that we keep coming back to, that can unite us, is the student experience,” Glass said.

Glass said that although many things can be done in different ways, if student experience doesn’t change, reforms won’t make much of an impact.

The next two multilingual events are scheduled for: 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2 at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School and 6 p.m. Monday, October 10 at Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.

slow down

New Jeffco superintendent calls a timeout on any more school closures

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Preschoolers work on body movement exercises at Pleasant View Elementary March 6, 2017.

In one of his first big moves as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Jason Glass has pledged to not recommend any schools be closed until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

Last spring, the staff of then-Superintendent Dan McMinimee recommended that five elementary schools be closed, citing voters’ rejection of a tax increase to improve school buildings and board members’ direction that the district find a way to pay teachers more.

Ultimately, the school board voted to close one school but left the door open to revisit closures on a broader scale, citing soaring maintenance costs for aging buildings.

Glass said that barring any drastic changes, the second largest district in Colorado should be able to manage without closing schools a couple more years. According to his plan, if Jeffco needs to close schools, those recommendations would be discussed in 2019 at the earliest, for closure in the 2019-20 school year. Glass announced the plan in a letter posted Friday on his blog.

“It buys us the time to re-envision what the schools’ purpose and direction is,” Glass told Chalkbeat Monday. “Really, the purpose about this is to slow down.”

Glass said the idea for the change, just two months into his tenure as Jeffco superintendent, came after talking to people through his district tour, and after reviewing “historical documents and news coverage,” including Chalkbeat stories about the potential impacts of the proposed closures.

Glass is directing district officials to work on a new process for deciding if a school needs to close.

Then the next year will be spent concentrating on efforts to ward off closures, including helping schools create programs to better attract students, and planning other uses for unoccupied space in buildings with declining enrollment.

That could include bringing in nonprofit partners or government agencies that might also serve Jeffco students — an idea raised during the most recent school closure discussions. One Jeffco school that was not being considered for closure last spring is moving forward with a similar approach under what is known as a community school model.

“There’s an entrepreneurial stance that has to be a part of this,” Glass said. “We need to be thinking of the type of schools the district has and about how can we use the space the district has to create opportunities for our families.”

If school closures are necessary in the future, the district will use whatever new process is created to make those decisions. Denver Public Schools in late 2015 adopted a new “bright line” school closure policy meant to use more objective criteria, but had to revise it after the first year it was put into practice was marred by challenges and setbacks.

The Jeffco closure plan will apply to district-run schools, not charter schools. Glass said charter schools will continue to be managed under their individual contracts unless the schools ask to renegotiate those.

The current school board majority generally supports Glass’s position on school closures, said board president Ron Mitchell. But three of the five seats are in play in this November’s election, and a different board could direct Glass to reconsider the plan.

Glass said any new closure criteria should consider a number of factors, including equity, school performance and the school’s context in the community.

“It is a numbers conversation, but it’s broader than that,” Glass said. “Performance, equity, service to the community, disruption to the community, entrepreneurial approaches, aspirations — all should be part of the calculus. If you have a school closure process that does not recognize all of those things it’s really not complete and they end up coming up one way or another.”

John Ford, president of the Jeffco teachers union, said creating a new plan will take time but is necessary to consider impacts for disadvantaged communities and students of color — which were not factors for staff in the last round of recommended closures. A recent study found school closures disproportionately affect students of color and often don’t help student learning.

“I think we learned our lessons from last year and the process we attempted to use when we closed Pleasant View,” Ford said. “There were some pieces missing.”

In the last discussion the district had about school closures, one school on the list, Peck Elementary in Arvada, was a high-performing school that had won state awards. School community members asked the school board to consider the school’s good work with students. Ultimately, one board member did cite that in his vote to spare the school.

Debbie Hansen, a mother of three children at the school, said parents are relieved by Glass’s announcement.

“We can finally breathe,” Hansen said. “I think that if you get a fuller picture, you’re able to understand better the impact that you have if you realize you might be closing down good schools. I think it’s great to have that broader sense of everything.”