[Updated] JEFFERSON COUNTY — School might have been canceled for students at Standley Lake High School, but that didn’t stop about 100 students from rallying this morning to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel.
Jeffco Public Schools canceled class at both Standley Lake and Conifer high schools this morning due to a large number of teacher absences.
About a third of the teaching staff at the each of the two schools called in, district staff said. Jeffco does not have an explicit policy on when to close down a school due to teacher absences. The decision to close a campus is made on a case-by-case basis.
The protests are the latest development in an escalating series of conflicts between vocal segments of the Jefferson County community and its school board. In recent weeks, conflict has centered around a new teacher compensation model the board adopted earlier this month that bases teacher raises on their evaluation ratings, as well as around a proposed new committee to review curriculum on criteria such as whether it promotes patriotism.
“While I respect the opportunity for free speech and expression, I think there are other ways to work through these differences without putting kids in the middle,” said Dan McMinimee, Jeffco’s superintendent, at a press conference today.
McMinimee stressed several times during the press conference that 153 of Jeffco’s 155 schools were still open.
On average, about 410 teachers call in sick or take a personal day each day in Jeffco, with an average of 480 calling in on Fridays. District officials said teacher absences were normal throughout the rest of the county.
District staff was monitoring its substitute teacher request phone line throughout the evening. As of 7 p.m. last night, Jeffco staff reported there was no sign of a mass call-out. But that changed at about midnight when Jeffco began contacting television news stations with the Standley Lake closure.
Meanwhile, the Standley Lake students had planned to walk out of class as a sign of protest at 8:20 a.m. But with the school closed, they met at the corner of 104th Avenue and Wadsworth Parkway instead. Students held posters they made yesterday after school and chanted “my school, my voice,” and “isn’t it great to have an education?”
Students said they were worried the board’s proposal aimed to censor their history classes.
“We can’t let this start with AP U.S. history,” said Ben Smith, a junior. “It will spread to the entire school.”
Board member Julie Williams — who has asked for a community panel to review the Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has been a target of conservatives across the country — said critics have misinterpreted her request. Standley Lake is one of the schools in the district Williams represents.
“All I’m asking is that we look at it,” Williams said at last night’s board meeting.
While the student’s protest was clearly taking aim at the board’s debate over curriculum review, it was less clear why teachers called out sick.
The rumored “sick out,” which was discouraged in an email from district staff yesterday, was not organized by the suburban teacher’s union.
“District leadership has heard from several sources that a significant number of employees may be planning an organized ‘sick out’ on Friday, Sept. 19 and Monday, Sept. 22,” the email to teachers read. “While we hope this isn’t true, we also can’t disregard the impact on our students and schools if this were to happen.”
The email also cited a Colorado law that makes an organized “sick out” illegal. While the district is reviewing all options, leaders were not prepared to “pigeon hole” teachers at the two schools who called in on Friday.
But in a statement, board president Ken Witt blasted the teachers who called in sick, saying that he was disappointed in the teachers’ choice to force schools to close.
“These same teachers that yesterday were wearing ‘Stand Up 4 Kids’ buttons, today decided not to stand up for our students, only one day after the board chose to give them generous performance raises,” he said. “I am saddened to see Jeffco students being used as union pawns, and am heartened that only two schools out of over 140 in Jeffco chose to be a part of this abuse of our students.”
Rumors about the “sick out” swirled throughout Jeffco Public Schools yesterday, including at last night’s board meeting. Teachers familiar with the “sick out” plans, speaking privately, said teachers throughout the district feel their voices have been ignored.
Earlier month the union issued a vote of no confidence in board chairman Ken Witt’s leadership. Witt, in August, unilaterally proposed a new compensation model for teachers that link evaluation scores to pay increases. While all teachers will be see some form of pay increase this year, many kinks in Witt’s model still need to be worked out.
In a statement, Jefferson County Education Association spokesman Scott Kwasny said that while the union was not involved in organizing the protest, officials empathized with the feelings that motivated it.
“This was not organized by JCEA but we certainly understand the frustration teachers and the entire community are experiencing when their elected officials are making decisions in secret, wasting taxpayer dollars, and disrespecting the community’s goals for their students,” he said. “Last night’s discussion about censoring the AP history curriculum is yet another example of this board majority shortchanging our students.”
Students are expected to return to the corner of 104th Avenue and Wadsworth at about 4 p.m. to resume their rally.
Jeffco officials are monitoring teacher absences for Monday. McMinimee said he plans to continue having conversations with teachers one-on-one and in small groups.
“For me, it’s less about punishment, and more about understanding and picking up the pieces and moving forward,” he said. “We have to schools in session. Our kids deserve to have an opportunity to learn.”
One Standley Lake mom, Lindsay Woltz, said she was sorry tensions between teachers and the Jeffco board had come to this.
“Our teachers have their act together,” she said. “I know today was an act of rebellion, but I don’t think they had a choice.”