Totally recalled

Jeffco school board members who pushed controversial changes ousted in recall

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Recall supporters react as the news was announced that the embattled school board majority conceded.

LAKEWOOD — After two years of political acrimony in the Colorado’s second largest school district, three conservative school board members were easily swept out of office Tuesday in a recall election that cost more than a million dollars and attracted national attention.

Replacing them are three candidates backed by a constituency of well-connected parents, high-profile county Democrats and the teachers union. They will serve the rest of the recall targets’ four-year terms.

Two other school board candidates supported by organizers of the recall also were elected, completely resetting the Jefferson County school board.

“It appears to me public education in Jefferson County is not for sale,” said school board member-elect Ali Lasell.

The conclusion of the tug-of-war for Jeffco Public Schools not only sets Jeffco Public Schools in a new, if not familiar, direction but also inflicts a high-profile blow to conservative education reform activists who support merit pay for teachers and expanding charter schools and voucher programs.

“Change is hard and sometimes the first agents of change suffer from a slow response,” said ousted school board president Ken Witt.

At odds in the recall were some of the nation’s thorniest education debates: how teachers are evaluated and paid, the role of charter schools and how to fund them, and how to pay for early childhood education.

The recall was a big gamble for the school board’s critics, considering that such efforts are expensive and rarely successful.

Ultimately, recall organizers were able to convince about 28,000 more Jeffco residence to cast a vote in this year’s election than in 2013. Those additional voters overwhelming voted to recall the school board majority in a race many political observers expected to be close.

For example, 82,868 voters in 2013 voted to put Julie Williams in office. In 2015, 104,845 voters voted to recall her, according to returns posted by 10:30 p.m.

Williams declined to comment on the results.

Organizers behind the recall, surprised by the two-to-one margin of victory, credited their vast network of parents, teachers and other civic leaders who volunteered thousands of hours to carry recall petitions, walk neighborhoods, host dinner parties and post relentlessly on social media.

“We might have been outspent by the other side,” said recall organizer Michael Blanton, “but we weren’t outworked.”

Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson reacts to an outcry of support after announcing she'll leave the district in February. Stevenson said her decision came after a deteriorating relationship with the new majority on the district's board of education.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson reacts to an outcry of support after announcing she’ll leave the district in February. Stevenson said her decision came after a deteriorating relationship with the new majority on the district’s board of education.

Genesis of a controversy
The three school board members recalled Tuesday — Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams — were elected by wide margins in 2013.

The three conservatives rode a wave of backlash against a controversial data management program being piloted in Jeffco schools that was backed by tech giant and education reform activist Bill Gates and a billion dollar statewide tax increase also on the ballot.

Further, the three candidates claimed Jeffco schools, which had a generally well-regarded reputation, could and should do better to boost student achievement, which was stagnant.

While critics claim the board majority was elected during a low turnout off-year election, 2013 boasted the highest ever turnout in Jefferson County in an odd election year: 43 percent. Turnout this year was 45 percent.

The day after the 2013 election, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson announced she’d leave her post at the end of the school year after leading the district for 12 years, later citing a breakdown in trust.

Later that spring after a national search, the school board, on a 3-2 vote, named Douglas County schools administrator Dan McMinimee as Jeffco’s new superintendent. His ties to Douglas County, where similar reforms were underway, and his salary would become recall campaign fodder.

Parent network sprung up early
The foundation for the recall effort’s ground game was built on websites and social networks created by a core group of parents that previously had the ear of superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

Soon after the school board majority was elected, parents and activists began videotaping school board meetings and uploaded clips to YouTube. Blogs tracking the school board majority’s every move sprung up. Facebook groups connected parents with civic leaders and teachers.

Once the recall was officially launched in late June, those YouTube filmmakers, bloggers and Facebook friends became ground troops that went door-to-door every weekend to wrangle votes.

“We couldn’t have done the recall without the network we’ve developed with parents groups and civic organizations,” Tina Gurdikan, one of the recall’s parent organizers.

Wheat Ridge High School teacher Arik Helm speaks during a March 14 bargaining session.
Wheat Ridge High School teacher Arik Helm speaks during a March 14 bargaining session.

Teacher pay was flagship reform
Perhaps the school board majority’s most contentious move involved how teachers are paid.

In September 2014, the majority approved a plan to link teachers’ raises to their annual evaluations. The plan, which did not include input from the teachers union, was based on a graph Witt drew by hand.

It called for the minimum salary to be raised to $38,000; teachers rated effective to earn a raise and those rated highly-effective to receive even more compensation. Teachers who were rated less than effective would receive no raise, unless their minimum salary was less than $38,000.

Previously, the minimum salary was $31,000 and teachers were given raises based on years of service and their education level.

The school board majority’s relationship with the teachers union only further deteriorated in 2015 when the board majority — as well as the board’s minority members — approved a higher salary scale for teachers who would join the district in 2015.

Jeffco veterans, who voluntarily took pay cuts and pay freezes during the previous five years, felt snubbed.

That vote — along with refusing to allocate $15 million in one-time money for raises — almost derailed contract negotiations with the union.

Ultimately, a new contract was signed and more than $21 million went to pay for teacher raises. But as critics pointed out, that averaged out to about a 1 percent raise per teacher, far less than the increase in cost-of-living.

Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19, 2014, 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, 2014, 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.”

A contentious history lesson
The nation’s attention first turned to the turmoil in Jefferson County when thousands of high school students began protesting a 2014 proposal to create a new curriculum review committee taking aim at a recently-revised advanced U.S. History class.

Conservatives across the nation had complained that a revised Advanced Placement U.S. History class was too critical about the nation’s history and did not emphasize important political figures like Thomas Jefferson.

Teachers, parents and students saw school board member saw an overreach in Williams’ proposal, which asked for curriculum that promoted American Exceptionalism and discouraged social strife.

After two weeks of student walkouts, national headlines and a trending hashtag — #jeffcoschoolboardhistory — on Twitter, the school board majority passed a dramatically scaled-back resolution that placed parents and students on an existing curriculum review panel. They also made that panel responsible to the school board so those meetings would be public.

It was that debate over the U.S. history course that weighed heavily on Westminster voter Brian Little. He voted for the recall.

“I didn’t like that history thing they did last year,” he said Tuesday, referring to school board member Julie Williams’ proposal.

On the other side of the Advanced Placement U.S. History debate and recall was Don Fitzner. He said he believed the teachers union used students as pawns to drive a wedge in the community.

“The teachers union is out to railroad these guys,” he said. “They want to teach a version of history that blames America for everything that is wrong in the world.”

Big money on both sides flooded campaign
The combined costs for the recall and the campaign for two open seats is expected to swell beyond a million dollars and stands to be the most expensive school board election in state history. Much of that money will never be fully disclosed because of limited disclosure requirements.

The political committees Jeffco United for Action, which launched the recall, and Jeffco United Forward, were financed mostly by small donors throughout Jefferson County, including $13,000 collected by selling yard signs at $10 a pop.

Low-profile Democratic donors with deep pockets and the county’s teachers union also gave liberally to support the slate of candidates backed by recall organizers.

Meanwhile, three social welfare nonprofits came to the defense of the school board majority: Jeffco Students First Action, the Denver-based Independence Institute and Americans For Prosperity, which is backed by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers.

Because the three organizations are nonprofits, they are free to raise an unlimited amount of money and so long as they don’t directly advocate for candidates, are free to keep their expenditures private.

Healing, but first a little gloating
While the recall effort garnered national attention, the issues and rhetoric were extremely personal.

In one instance, Witt’s youngest daughter was harassed at her high school. In another, a supporter of the board majority suggested members of teachers union should “executed.”

Jabs were exchanged on Twitter and the micro-social networking site Nextdoor. Accusations were flung back and forth on news websites.

All five newly elected school board members Tuesday night pledged to work with all members of the Jeffco Public Schools community , while also reveling in their easy victory.

“We didn’t just win this — we slammed them,” said Ron Mitchell, who will succeed Witt. “What an incredible thing: We the people pushed back against big money, pushed back against an agenda that was not good for our schools.”

School board member-elect Amanda Stevens took a different tone.

“We look forward to reconciliation and paths forward as a united Jeffco,” she told the audience.

Superintendent McMinimee, in a statement said he looked forward to working with the new school board to bridge the divide in the school community.

“We hope that our Jeffco community can heal its rifts and reunite to focus on ensuring that every Jeffco student is well-equipped and prepared to excel in his or her college life or career,” he said.

Chalkbeat reporter Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

This article was updated to include updated voter turnout numbers. 

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”



outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”