Total Recall

Jeffco board president Ken Witt asks for ethics opinion into recall claim

PHOTO: Gabrielle Porter, Canyon Courier
Jefferson County school board president and recall target hold an envelope containing a request for an advisory opinion from the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.

Jefferson County School Board President Ken Witt, the target of a high-profile recall campaign, announced Thursday he is asking the state’s Independent Ethics Commission to weigh in on recall organizers’ claim that he violated state transparency laws.

“I’m simply calling their bluff,” Witt said at a news conference.

Making such a determination, however, is not the typical role of the commission, said Amy DeVan, the commission’s executive director. Neither open meeting violations nor actions taken by unpaid elected officials are within its jurisdiction.

“The IEC doesn’t have authority to do what the legislature gave the court the ability to do regarding opening meeting laws,” DeVan said.

Witt’s move is the latest twist in a recall campaign that has drawn considerable outside interest and no shortage of political maneuvering to the suburban school district in a bellwether Colorado county.

Witt, at his press conference, said he’d let the commission decide what it has jurisdiction over.

“Yes, this is ridiculous, an elected official filing an ethics complaint himself,” Witt said. “But sadly, this empty ridiculous accusation requires an equally ridiculous action to shed light on the truth.”

The commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Nov. 6, three days after the election.

While the commission can ask for an earlier meeting, it isn’t typical, DeVan said.

Another wrinkle to Witt’s request is that typically an elected official or state employee seeks an advisory opinion about an action they’re contemplating, said Peg Perl of the Colorado Ethics Watch.

“You can only ask for an advisory opinion about something you haven’t done yet,” she said. “They really can’t do an advisory opinion about past conduct.”

The transparency violation claim is cited on the recall question that made the ballot this November. The most specific claim cited by recall proponents: that the hiring of board attorney Brad Miller was a done deal before a public vote was taken.

Miller’s position and how he got it has been a longstanding sore point among opponents of Witt and two other conservative school board majority members who swept into office in November 2013. In the past, the board hired lawyers on a case-by-case basis. Miller’s hiring represented the first time the school board had a lawyer on retainer.

Witt said that of all the recall claims, the transparency violation allegation disturbs him most.

“Their assertions don’t pass the credibility test,” he said.

Witt emphasized he was asking for the commission’s opinion regarding the claim against him, not against his two colleagues also targeted in the recall — John Newkirk and Julie Williams.

The state’s open meeting law allows board members to discuss the school district’s business one-on-one.

However, it forbids three elected officials or a quorum, whichever is greater, from meeting without proper notification.

Further, transparency activists and case law from around the country suggest it is illegal for elected officials, like school board members, to work around the law by coordinating “spoke” meetings.

A “spoke” meeting, also known as a “walking quorum,” is when one elected official meets with other members of the board on the same subject to coordinate a vote or policy stance.

Recall organizers claim that Witt, Williams and Newkirk have wasted taxpayer dollars, disrespected the community and met illegally in private. The recall targets counter that they’ve authorized building a school without increasing the district’s debt, given teachers raises, and opened access to school board meetings by streaming them live on the Internet.

Witt’s request

getting to know you

New Jeffco superintendent has more questions than answers in tour of district

New Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

New Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass introduced himself to the community Monday with an eight-site swing through the sprawling district, asking the same three questions of community members at every stop.

At a late afternoon visit to the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver in Lakewood, the former Eagle County schools chief asked more than 50 residents, parents and teachers for feedback on what the 86,000-student district should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.

That was in keeping with what Glass promised this spring when he was tapped to succeed Dan McMinimee, who had led Jeffco since 2013. Even before officially starting, Glass met with staff and visited schools. He told Chalkbeat in May he would not start with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said in the spring. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

In Lakewood, much of the hourlong discussion evolved around expanding community partnerships and supporting students with diverse needs, which Glass said were common themes he heard throughout Monday. Glass has said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs.

“We only have so much energy, time, resources to spend, and we want to make sure that those are pointed toward the real concerns — issues and vision for the community,” he said in an interview. “We only can get to that by talking to people and finding out what that really is.”

No labels

How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.