Analysis

Nine claims made in the Jefferson County school board recall explained

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County school board member and recall target Julie Williams at a candidate forum.

There is no shortage of accusations or political posturing in Jefferson County these days.

Backers of the high-stakes Jefferson County school board recall made their beefs with the school board majority known in June when they began collecting signatures.

Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk and their supporters have fired back with their own claims.

In an effort to help you make an informed decision, we’ve laid out each side’s claims and provided what we believe is important context.

What the recall supporters claim

1. The school board majority has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Recall backers claim that the board wasted millions of dollars. On the ballot, they cite two examples of waste: resources put into hiring a new superintendent and a lawyer.

While it’s true Superintendent Dan McMinimee is paid more than predecessor Cindy Stevenson, he’s not making $80,000 more, as recall supporters claim. McMinimee’s base salary is $220,000 and he is eligible for up to $40,000 in merit bonuses. Stevenson’s base pay was $201,328 and she was eligible for up to $20,000 in merit bonuses. Both received comparable retirement benefits. The district covers McMinimee’s expenses, which it did not do for Stevenson.

The hiring of attorney Brad Miller for $90,000 a year by the board majority has been another sore spot. Previously, the board contracted as needed with the law firm of Caplan and Earnest and others.

Between 2009 and 2013, the board spent on average $41,241 on legal fees, according to data on the district’s financial transparency page. In 2014 and 2015, the average more than doubled to $95,756.

So where does the claim about millions of dollars come from? Critics point to other moves, as well, most notably the board majority’s increased financial support for charter schools. Critics believe the board redirected millions of dollars from a voter-approved tax increase intended for district-run schools to charters.

2. The school board majority’s policies are forcing highly skilled teachers to leave.

Jefferson County teachers wait for an elevator outside the district's board chambers after the Board of Education approved a tentative compensation model that abandons the traditional structure based on time and education.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County teachers wait for an elevator outside the district’s board chambers after the Board of Education approved a tentative compensation model that abandons the traditional structure based on time and education.

Like most of the state, Jefferson County has experienced an increase in teacher turnover.

While Colorado’s second largest school district’s rate is still lower than the state average, the district saw a dramatic spike — 5 percentage points — in the first calendar year the school board majority was elected, according to data provided by the district to the Colorado Department of Education. By comparison, the statewide average ticked up less than a percentage point between 2013 and 2014.

It’s to be expected that the lion’s share of teachers who left Jeffco were rated effective or highly-effective because nearly 98 percent of teachers in Jeffco were given that rating on their annual evaluation last year.

New data from the district shows 48.5 percent of teachers were rated highly effective during the 2014-15 school year. During the same time, 49.2 percent were rated effective, 2 percent were rated partly effective and 0.2 percent were rated ineffective.

Of the 734 teachers who left the district at the end of the 2014-15 school year with completed evaluations, about 31 percent were rated highly effective, 57 percent were rated effective, 11 percent were rated partly effective and 1 percent were rated ineffective.

That means the district retained more teachers rated highly effective and lost a larger proportion of more teachers rated effective, partly effective or ineffective.

While some teachers who left the district have shared their frustration about the board majority, there’s no way of knowing what is driving the increased turnover.

3. The school board majority has limited public comment.

The school board usually limits public comment to two one-hour blocks. The first hour is for comments related to agenda items. The second hour is for items not on the agenda.

Individuals are allowed to speak for up to three minutes. Groups have 10 minutes. If more than 20 people or groups are signed up, individuals get one or two minutes and groups have five.

Soon after the school board majority was elected, the first block of public comment stretched on for two or three hours. That pushed some meetings well passed midnight. So the board majority decided to follow a pre-existing board policy that limited public comment to one hour.

4. The school board majority attempted to censor an advanced U.S. history class.

Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district's Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher "sick out."
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district’s Board of Education. The rally was the same day as a teacher “sick out.”

Last fall, Julie Williams proposed the district establish a committee to ensure a high school advanced history course did not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and that instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

The Advanced Placement U.S. History class is part of a large offering of courses designed by the College Board that can lead to earning college credit.

As part of a trend to emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization, the College Board drastically reduced the number of learning objectives. It also focused more time on early and recent American history and placed greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics complained that the changes were revisionist and presented a negative view of the country.

After student protests in Jeffco drew national attention, the board voted on a scaled back proposal that dropped Williams’ review but did change the composition of the district’s curriculum review committee to include parents and students. Previously, the committee reported to the superintendent. Now, it reports to the board. That means those meetings must be opened to the public.

A postscript: the organization responsible for designing the advanced history class made further revisions to the framework this summer following the conservative backlash. In part, the College Board neutralized some of the language it uses in the learning objectives and added a section about American Exceptionalism. The changes fall short of Williams’ original proposal.

5. The school board majority repeatedly violated open meeting laws by making major decisions behind closed doors.

To violate the state’s open meeting laws, three of the five Jefferson County school board members would need to meet in person without posting public notice or correspond electronically either by email or text. The board could also potentially violate public meeting laws by holding “spoke” or “walking quorum” meetings. That’s when one school board member acts as a go-between several members to coordinate discussions or votes.

Recall supporters claim the decision to hire Miller was a done deal before the board voted in public. They point two key pieces of evidence. First, only board majority members spoke to Miller before the vote. Second, a board member of another school district said Miller had been hired by the Jeffco school board the day before the Jeffco board met.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Bob Kerrigan said he did his own research on Miller and did not talk to any Jeffco school board member about Miller.

The majority board members say any of the five board members could have talked to Miller, and that because none of the interviews took place with multiple board members, the law was not violated.

What the recall targets counter

6. The school board majority has given teachers $21 million dollars in raises.

This is true. But there are important pieces of context to keep mind.

First, this school board was the first in five years to be in a position to give teachers raises. After five years of deep budget cuts, funding only reached pre-Great Recession levels in 2014.

Second, the $21 million over two years in raises is far cry from the raises teachers were promised when they agreed to budget cuts and freezes during the recession. But given how the state funds school districts and a lack of local funding, the board and district have few options to fill a $28 million gap in teacher pay created during the recession.

Third, the $21 million equates to about a 1 to 2 percent raise per year for each of the district’s some 5,000 teachers. That, critics say, is less than the rate of cost of living increases in the Denver-metro area.

7. The school board majority has expanded school choice.

Americans For Prosperity-Colorado volunteer Kim Gilmartin, left, and AFP field director Alex Bolton, knocked on doors in a Littleton neighborhood Sept. 19 asking voters for their opinion on the school board majority's policies including school choice.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Americans For Prosperity-Colorado volunteer Kim Gilmartin, left, and AFP field director Alex Bolton, knocked on doors in a Littleton neighborhood Sept. 19 asking voters for their opinion on the school board majority’s policies including school choice.

Since the board majority took office in 2013, it has approved one of two new charter schools it has considered. That charter school, Golden View Classical Academy, enrolls 498 students, less than 1 percent of the district’s 85,000 students.

The board has no control over how many organizations apply for a charter, so it has no direct control over how many new charters open.

But the board majority has signaled it wants more charter schools in Jeffco.

It set a local precedent to give charter schools equal funding to its district-run schools and has provided loans to charter schools in need of a lifeline. And at a Dec. 10 meeting, the board will consider moving its charter application window to the spring to give charter schools more time to plan prior to opening.

8. The school board built a new school without incurring debt.

One of the most heated debates the school board had this year was how to manage expected growth in northwest Arvada. District officials project 6,000 new students in Arvada during the next seven years.

Superintendent Dan McMinimee and his staff first pitched the district borrowing $30 million to build a new kindergarten through eighth grade school. However, the board majority rejected the proposal, saying it did not want to add any more debt to the district given an uncertain state funding forecast from the state.

As part of the district’s final 2015-2016 budget, the board majority instead directed $18 million to build a new school for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

A crucial fact about this claim: the school hasn’t been built yet. While school officials believe the school can be built for $18 million, there has been no bid or contract awarded.

9. Student achievement has increased since the board majority took office.

Recent student data is mixed.

Graduation rates between 2013 and 2014 increased by 2 percentage points. But the school board majority hadn’t enacted any sort of policies changes by May 2014 to really drive that change.  Meanwhile, ACT scores between 2014 and 2015 remained flat.

Fifth-graders performed better on the state’s science tests last year, but eighth-graders performed worse. There was a modest uptick in fourth grade social studies tests in 2015. But seventh grade scores for the same year were flat.

Reading and math data on the state’s most recent tests won’t be available until after the election. The state is switching assessments, however, so it will be nearly impossible to make comparisons.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.