double the fun

Can — and should — Colorado teachers serve on local school boards?

The Denver Public Schools board at a meeting in December 2014 at South High School.

When we published a story about people eager to fill a vacancy on the Denver school board, a reader posted the following comment on Facebook about one of the hopefuls:

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The “actual teacher” here — Arnetta Koger — teaches social studies while coaching other teachers at the Denver School of International Studies. She is one of two teachers who were in the initial field of 22. Both she and charter school teacher Dexter Korto are among 10 finalists to succeed Landri Taylor in representing northeast Denver on the board.

The question on social media and the presence of two teachers on the finalist list made us wonder: Are there any restrictions on Colorado teachers serving on school boards, and what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of a classroom instructor taking on the dual roles?

First off, let’s look at the legal question. There is no law in Colorado that forbids a school district employee — whether it’s a teacher, school bus driver or mid-level administrator — from serving on the school board in the district in which they work.

However, some school districts, including Denver and Aurora, forbid school district employees from serving on their own school boards, citing the risk of conflicts of interest.

Such prohibitions are not unusual. Denver-based libertarian think tank the Independence Institute reported in 2004 that 11 of the state’s 25 largest districts had such policies at the time.

The Denver Public Schools policy, adopted in 1987, states:

An employee elected to the Board shall be required to relinquish employment with the district prior to taking office. Employees are encouraged to consider this prior to running for the Board.

The policy does not explicitly address charter school employees, who aren’t on the district payroll but work for the charter schools themselves.

District officials have said they’ve notified finalists Koger and Korto, a writing teacher at DSST: Cole, a DPS charter school, of the policy, and that legal advice would be sought in Korto’s case.

Education policy experts and observers we spoke to said they believe it’s a good idea for educators to serve on school boards — with some caveats.

“Teachers understand how policies impact students and schools,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “A lot of what school boards are tasked with doing, a lot of what they decide — especially curriculum — teacher knowledge is really important.”

Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center, part of the Independence Institute, said she believes educators can bring a wealth of information to school boards. But she said teachers should not serve on the boards of districts where they teach.

Many school boards in Colorado bargain teacher salaries, so the conflict of interest is clear, Benigno said.

“I personally wouldn’t have any problem with a retired teacher being on a school board, nor a teacher from another district,” she said. “They’re not going to be voting on their own compensation package or other policy that would impact them.”

Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.
Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.

She added that similar policies should be adopted by charter school boards.

Jane Urschel, deputy director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said it’s rare for a teacher to serve on his or her own school board. But it has happened, especially in smaller rural school districts.

“It can work,” she said, adding that the electorate has the final say on who serves on school boards.

Urschel said the association suggests any school district employee who sits on the school board doing the following:

  1. After being elected, send a blanket disclosure to the Secretary of State’s office
  2. Disclose any conflicts of interest as they pop up on the agenda
  3. Do not engage in the discussion around that agenda item
  4. Do not vote on the agenda item
  5. Note the conflict of interest in the meeting’s minutes

But Urschel said teachers who serve on school boards — like all school board members — need to remember they work for a large consistency, not just the folks in their profession.

“Teachers have excellent expertise,” she said. “But they, like every other participant, must understand they represent a full constituency. It’s very hard for school board members to broaden their thinking. It takes a little time.”

What is more common, CEA’s Baca-Oehlert said, is for teachers to work in one school district and serve on the school board of the district in which they live.

One such teacher is Greg Piotraschke. He teaches music at a Jefferson County elementary school and serves on the Brighton 27J school board.

He doesn’t sleep much, but he said being a teacher and serving on a school board at the same time is rewarding.

“I truly do think that having the voice of people who are in the trenches and doing the work gives a lot of insight that the school board can take in,” Piotraschke said. “To shut out education professionals at the table when talking about education would be like shutting out doctors when talking about medical improvements.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.