No go on limits

Bid to cap school board campaign contributions fails; bill requiring more transparency advances

A bill that would have limited contributions in school board campaigns suffered a crushing defeat late Monday in a House committee.

But a second measure that would require more frequent financial disclosures in board races passed on unanimous vote of the House State Affairs Committee.

The original version of House Bill 16-1140 would have capped individual contributions to candidates at $500 and also limited contribution by committees.

The measure was introduced in response to last fall’s high spending in Denver school board and other district races. For example, incumbent Happy Haynes raised more than $120,000, including large individual contributions such as $5,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Robert Speth, who raised about half as much and narrowly lost to Haynes, testified in favor of the bill. Big contributions are “really warping the outcome of these races,” he said.

“The amount of money is our school board races is obscene,” said prime sponsor Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver.

But Democrats and Republicans alike on the committee were skeptical about the bill’s potential impact, arguing that contribution limits would just drive more spending by independent expenditure and other outside committees unconnected to candidates.

“Money will simply be transferred and be less transparent,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.

Outside spending in board races already has exploded and was a big factor in some district races last fall.

The bill died on an 8-1 vote, with only Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, supporting it.

School board contribution limits never have been a popular idea at the Capitol. The Colorado Education Association and its affiliates, heavy contributors through small donor committees, always have opposed limits. Republicans are leery of limits in general.

A similar bill was introduced in 2010 in response to heavy DPS contributions the year before. It was defeated on the House floor.

In contrast to the contributions limits bill, the committee voted 9-0 to pass House Bill 16-1282, which would require more frequent reporting of contributions to and spending by school board candidates. It will be heard next in the House Appropriations Committee.

Board elections are held in odd-numbered years. But due to an anomaly in state law, candidates and committees don’t have to file disclosures as frequently as candidates who run for other offices in even-numbered years.

For example, in even-numbered years, most campaign committees must file reports every two weeks between the beginning of September and the general election in November.

But in odd-numbered years, most committees must file only a single report in mid-October and then not report again until the following January. So updated committee contributions and spending aren’t available to the public during the height of the campaign season.

The bill would require candidates and committees to file on the more frequent schedule, although elections would remain in odd-numbered years. A ballot measure proposed by the conservative Independence Institute for the November election would move board elections to even-numbered years. That initiative has to be reviewed by state officials before petitions can be circulated.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: