More than 85,000 students across Jefferson County returned to their classrooms today — the first day of school for the state’s second largest school district.
As students sharpen their pencils and crack open their books, there is a tension in the suburban Denver school district that hasn’t existed before — and raises plenty of questions. Here are the top five we’ll be asking this school year:
Will teachers have a new contract on Sept. 1?
Jeffco Public Schools and the Jefferson County Education Association reached a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract earlier this month. While it’s big on decisions being made between teachers and principals at the school level, it’s short in duration. The contract only lasts 10 months. Nationally, the average contract length is three years.
The contract’s length may be a huge sticking point for teachers already wary of a school board they don’t trust.
Members of the teachers union will vote on the contract this weekend after a membership meeting Friday. A simple majority of the membership must ratify the contract’s terms. Then the school board must give it the OK.
If the union’s membership ratifies the contract, the school board will vote on it Aug. 27.
If neither the union nor the board sign off on the deal, it’s unclear what might happen after Aug. 31 when the contract expires.
How might the recall effort impact classrooms?
We’ll know Tuesday whether a group of parents calling itself Jeffco United for Action collected enough signatures to ask voters to recall school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk this fall.
What won’t be immediately known is what — if any — effect the political unrest will have on classrooms.
Supporters of the recall claim they want politics out of the classroom and that Jeffco teachers will remain professional. But critics of the recall fear it will cause a rift between teachers who oppose the school board majority and parents who support the majority with students stuck in the middle.
Researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat in the past suggested student achievement is likely to stall until some sort of harmony is restored to the school district.
Will a plan to improve chronically underperforming schools be successful?
One of the school district’s most ambitious endeavours this school year is improving academic achievement at a cluster of schools that border Denver’s west side. The schools serve mostly Latino students from low-income homes. These students lag academically behind their more affluent and white peers throughout the rest of the county.
But Jeffco school officials are putting a renewed emphasis on these schools.
All the pieces are in place. Now we wait to see if the plan works.
How will Jeffco manage its overcrowded classrooms?
A flashpoint in last school year’s budget debate was how to pay for a new school in rapidly growing northwest corner of Jefferson County.
Superintendent Dan McMinimee and his team wanted the school board to authorize a private loan for about $50 million to build a new school in Arvada that would serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Not wanting to increase the district’s debt, the school board majority approved $18 million to build an elementary school.
According to the district’s own projections, the elementary school will only be a short-term fix. It will be big enough for 1,000 students, not the 6,000 projected during the next seven years.
Other school districts struggling with overcrowding — like Aurora — are beginning conversations about asking residents for a tax increase on the 2016 ballot. Will Jeffco’s conservative board majority be interested in a similar conversation?
What lessons will Jeffco learn from student-based budgeting?
For decades, Jeffco principals were required to staff buildings based on a formula. A certain number of students meant a certain number of teachers, librarians, assistant principals and support staff.
But last school year, principals were asked to work with their teachers and parents to determine the unique needs of their school and hire accordingly. No more “one-size-fits-all” budget formulas.
The district did not turn school administrators loose, and this sort of budgeting approach is nothing new. But there’s bound to be lessons learned from the first year of budget flexibility. Let’s just hope no one loses $600,000.