Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Local funding

Colorado school districts taking another shot at tax measures after past defeats

A student works on her geometry homework during class at Brighton High School in Brighton on Nov. 12, 2015. (Denver Post file photo)

Higher teacher pay, technology upgrades and better curriculum resources are topping the wish lists of Colorado school districts going to voters with tax measures this November.

The Brighton 27J school district is one of nearly 20 districts with money measures on local ballots, and the only one in the Denver metro area. Colorado Springs’ District 11 and Greeley 6 also are asking voters for increased funding.

“We need it,” said Brighton superintendent Chris Fiedler. “We desperately need it.”

With a long-term fix to Colorado’s school funding challenges proving elusive, districts are left to make up gaps with local tax measures. That has led to vast inequities, with some districts able to bank on local voters and others being turned down again and again.

Voters in Brighton approved a bond request two years ago on a third attempt. The district had already resorted to stretching out school days to fit the district’s growing number of students in existing buildings. Voters then approved the bond request to help the district make more space.

But bond requests in Colorado are only allowed for certain uses, such as buildings.

That’s why the district is back this year, asking for a $12 million mill levy override, a property tax increase. The district has asked for this type of tax increase five times since 2003, but has been turned down every time. The last mill levy request approved was in 2000.

The money this year would be used to increase salaries, add counselors to every elementary school and provide new curriculum and technology. The district is in such financial straits, it recently had to purchase new literacy resources on a three-year payment plan.

Superintendent Fiedler said the district’s needs have been identified since 2014, but that he waited to ask because he didn’t think voters would approve both a bond and mill levy request on the same ballot.

“In my mind, it’s long overdue,” Fiedler said.

In Greeley, the district also asked voters for an increase in local taxes last year and was turned down.

This time the district is seeking approval for a $14 million mill levy request that would go to pay teachers and staff more and to update curriculum, technology and add security cameras at the high school.

Terri Pappas, school board director and co-chair of the campaign for the ballot question, said people last year just wanted the district to be more specific about how the money would be used, and some needed more information about how school funding works.

“We did a lot of outreach and we’ve taken all of that feedback, all of that information and we’ve been working diligently since May coming up with a plan to reach voters,” Pappas said.

The difference between the no votes and yes votes last year was so close, Pappas said, that district leaders felt they had to use that momentum this year.

Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer of Colorado Springs School District 11, said district leaders there felt the same way.

District 11 is also just asking for a mill levy override this year, but has raised the amount to $42 million, up from last year’s unsuccessful $32.6 million mill levy request. The money would be used for salaries, facility improvements and for new school psychologists and counselors.

Gustafson said the low salaries are especially affecting the district’s ability to hire support staff. For instance, the district has 29 open positions for food workers, he said.

“We’re short on bus drivers every single day,” Gustafson said. “We have to pull people out of the office to help drive.”

Voters last approved a mill levy tax increase in District 11 in 2000. Voters in Greeley have never approved a property tax increase for school funding.

Brighton’s district leaders think there’s one more thing that might be able to make a difference in this year’s elections: the voter base.

Colorado voter registration records show Adams County has seen an increase of more than 37,000 voters since November of 2011, the last time Brighton asked voters for a mill levy override. In recent years, voter records show one of the biggest increases is among 18 to 25 year-olds.

“The vast majority of those folks are young families with kids,” Superintendent Fiedler said. “They have different perspectives.”

In District 11, Gustafson said a large challenge is reaching voters who don’t have children in schools. In Greeley, officials believe there are new young families in the district, but it remains a challenge to get them all to vote.

“We need to make sure we reach out to all of our voters,” Gustafson said. “And we’re pushing to get all of our parents involved.”