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. 

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.