GOLDEN — Teachers who prompted two Jefferson County high schools to close today by taking either sick or personal days may face disciplinary actions, the district’s superintendent said this afternoon.

Teachers at Jefferson and Golden high schools will be required to meet with building principals to either provide proof of their illness or prove they followed the guidelines to request personal time off laid out in a collective bargaining agreement between the district and the teachers union.

If teachers are unable to provide proof or requested time off too late, Superintendent Dan McMinimee said, they could lose a day’s pay.

In less than a dozen days, Jeffco Public Schools has gone from the quintessential suburban school system to a district in crisis mode. Along with shuttering schools due to teacher absences, Jeffco officials have had to respond to student-organized protests over a proposed curriculum committee critics believe will lead to censorship.

Now, Jeffco’s controversial leader, hired just months ago on a split vote by the board of education, is walking a tight rope between the conservative board majority bent on upending the status quo and a vocal community of teachers and parents demanding to be heard.

“I’m really disappointed,” McMinimee said. “We don’t need to be in this place … We’re all adults.”

In an effort to curb anxiety over a proposed review committee critics believe could lead to censoring parts of U.S. history, McMinimee also told reporters today he plans to recommend board members work within current policies that guide curriculum challenges at an Oct. 2 meeting.

Today’s apparent teacher sick-out is the second time in two weeks Jefferson County teachers actions have led to the district closing entire buildings. At Golden High, 81 percent of teachers called in. At Jefferson High, 75 percent of teachers called in. Previously, about 30 percent of the teaching staff at Conifer and Standley Lake high schools orchestrated the first sick-out Sept. 19.

The Jefferson County Education Association today once again denied any role in the mass teacher absences.

“This was not organized by JCEA but we certainly understand the frustration our teachers and the entire community are experiencing when their school board majority are making decisions in secret, wasting taxpayer dollars, and disrespecting the community’s goals for their students,” said John Ford, president of the union, in a statement.

Tension between the board majority — made up of Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk — and vocal teachers and parents has been high almost from the moment the three conservatives were elected in November. But a series of recent decisions have only increased the criticism and fear among some portions of the community.

The sick-outs are an attempt by the teachers to raise public awareness across the county about those fears. While teachers are concerned about the direction the district’s board majority is taking them, the mass absences are perhaps most directly linked to the adoption of a new pay-for-performance compensation plan for teachers.

The new compensation plan, which is expected to go into effect in November, links teacher raises and bonuses to evaluations. Previously, teachers saw an increase in pay based on time served and their own education level. Under the new model, nearly every teacher will see a raise.

A Jeffco Public Schools employee arrived at Jefferson High School Monday morning to learn classes had been canceled. Too many teachers requested substitutes Monday at Jefferson and Golden high and school was canceled.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Jeffco Public Schools employee arrived at Jefferson High School Monday morning to learn classes had been canceled. Too many teachers requested substitutes Monday at Jefferson and Golden high and school was canceled.

But teachers have two primary concerns. First, the model will rely almost exclusively on a teacher evaluation system a third party fact finder found unreliable. Second, because the new compensation model was proposed by Jeffco board chairman Ken Witt without input from educators, teachers are frustrated and worried their pay could change all over again in a year.

“Given the consistent academic success of Jefferson County Schools, a merit based compensation program is greatly to the advantage of the overwhelming majority of Jeffco teachers,” teachers from Conifer High wrote in a statement after their sick-out. “Merit based pay is not the issue. This issue is the use of an arbitrary, nontransparent evaluation system that vests absolute authority in administrators to determine all levels of teacher effectiveness.”

Meanwhile, the sick-outs have provided plenty of grist for critics of teachers unions, who believe the actions are informal strikes.

Legal experts who spoke to Chalkbeat about the sick-outs today said if the district were to pursue legal action, the burden would likely be on Jeffco officials to prove an explicit link between the teachers calling in sick and the union.

“Some courts have seen through that,” said Dick Mandelson, a labor attorney with the Baker-Hostetler law firm. “But it’s a fine line.” 

McMinimee declined to call the sick-outs illegal, and said the district is not considering legal action against individual teachers or the union.

The sick-outs also bookmark a week’s worth of student-led protests over a proposed curriculum review committee that made national headlines. Over the course of the last week, students from each Jefferson County high school took to the streets to rally against a proposed curriculum review and stand in solitary with their teachers.

Those protests continued today when about 50 students at Jefferson High School in Edgewater, just west of Denver, also demonstrated.

“We have a right to our education,” said Laura Solis, a Jefferson student. “For them to not want us to know the full story of our history — that’s wrong.”

The curriculum review committee, if established as proposed by board majority member Julie Williams, would go to work first on an advanced history class conservatives believe is revisionist and unpatriotic.

Despite mounting public pressure in the streets and a trending backlash on social media, board members who support the idea to establish a community committee to review curriculum at their pleasure don’t appear to be backing down.

But McMinimee told reporters today he’ll suggest the board work within the district’s existing policies to vet their concerns.

“There are already vehicles [to address concerns],” McMinimee said.

There are currently more than 20 policies governing curriculum in the district, including one to directly challenge classroom materials.

McMinimee said after listening to students throughout the district, he’s prepared to recommend to the board they expand those committees on a case-by-case basis and include students and community members.

Today’s developments in the ongoing turmoil in Jeffco clearly frustrated McMinimee.

“Everybody owns responsibility for where we are now,” he said, urging all parties to make better decisions for students.

Correction: The caption on the accompanying photo has been corrected to reflect the woman photographed is an employee of Jeffco Public Schools, not an administrator.