Union Vote

Cary Kennedy ‘aligns with all of our issues and values,’ teachers union president says in endorsement

Two influential teachers unions have endorsed Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary for governor. 

The Colorado Education Association and the Colorado chapter of the American Federation of Teachers both gave Kennedy their blessing Wednesday.

It’s the first time that CEA has endorsed in a gubernatorial primary, according to union president Kerrie Dallman. This is also the first competitive Democratic primary for governor in two decades. 

“Cary blew us out of the water,” Dallman said. “She aligns with all of our issues and values that our membes share and our hopes for what public education can be in the state of Colorado.”

Ellen Slatkin, president of the Metropolitan State Faculty Federation and AFT-Colorado, described Kennedy as someone with a precise mind and a big heart when it comes to education issues.

“A lot of candidates are good on the issue of education,” Slatkin said. “They care about kids, and they care about higher education opportunities. But Cary knows how to get it there. She knows what it takes to work legislative pieces, how to mobilize constituencies. She’s just so thorough, and at the same time, she’s just so kind.”

Kennedy is a former state treasurer and chief financial officer for the city of Denver who was the author of Amendment 23, a measure that requires the state to increase educational funding every year. The state doesn’t fully comply with that requirement because it can’t afford it. Union representatives cited Amendment 23 and the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants for school construction and renovation, as examples of what Kennedy has already done for education in Colorado.

Kennedy has made increasing teacher pay a key part of her education platform, which also also calls for universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten. She says her ultimate goal is have every Colorado student in college or in the workforce by age 19. 

“As governor of Colorado, I will make public education our state’s top priority,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t make any sense that our economy is one of the top-ranked economies in the country and our investment in our schools ranks at the bottom. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. Teachers can’t afford to work here. They can’t afford to live here. And every day we’re losing great teachers from our classrooms.”

Kennedy acknowledges that enacting this platform would require changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep more revenue. TABOR is considered nearly sacred in Colorado politics, but she thinks there is enough support among local Republican leaders to overturn it at the ballot.

“As governor, I will lead a bipartisan coalition to pass permanent TABOR reform so that we don’t have to keep cutting our school budgets,” she said. “Nearly every local government in the state has obtained voter approval to keep local tax revenue, notwithstanding TABOR’s limits, and I will lead the statewide effort to allow the state to keep tax revenue generated by growth in our economy to invest in our schools and our infrastructure.”

These endorsements come as anti-immigrant hardliner Tom Tancredo announced he was withdrawing from the Republican race for governor. Tancredo was seen as a likely spoiler in the governor’s race, and in announcing his withdrawal, he declared he did not think any Republican can win.

With Tancredo out of the race, many observers believe current State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who beat Kennedy to get the job he holds now, is the Republican frontrunner.

Dallman stressed that she believes Kennedy can win in the primary and the general election, and she said her association’s 35,000 members would be making phone calls and knocking on doors to get the word out about their candidate.

Education has been a major issue in the Democratic campaign. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is a former chair of the State Board of Education, and Mike Johnston, a former state lawmaker and educator, has drawn significant support from education reform advocates. Businessman Noel Ginsburg runs a program that provides apprenticeships for high school students.

With his close ties to the education reform community, Johnston was never in the running for a union endorsement. Of Polis, Dallman said, “He just didn’t align with us on all of our issues.”

Ready Colorado, the primary conservative voice on education issues in the state, does not plan to endorse in the Republican race. It’s not clear if Democrats for Education Reform will take a position in the Democratic race.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia talked at length with Kennedy about her education ideas last year. You can read that interview here.

This story has been updated with comments from the announcement and interviews.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.