double the fun

Can — and should — Colorado teachers serve on local school boards?

The Denver Public Schools board at a meeting in December 2014 at South High School.

When we published a story about people eager to fill a vacancy on the Denver school board, a reader posted the following comment on Facebook about one of the hopefuls:

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The “actual teacher” here — Arnetta Koger — teaches social studies while coaching other teachers at the Denver School of International Studies. She is one of two teachers who were in the initial field of 22. Both she and charter school teacher Dexter Korto are among 10 finalists to succeed Landri Taylor in representing northeast Denver on the board.

The question on social media and the presence of two teachers on the finalist list made us wonder: Are there any restrictions on Colorado teachers serving on school boards, and what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of a classroom instructor taking on the dual roles?

First off, let’s look at the legal question. There is no law in Colorado that forbids a school district employee — whether it’s a teacher, school bus driver or mid-level administrator — from serving on the school board in the district in which they work.

However, some school districts, including Denver and Aurora, forbid school district employees from serving on their own school boards, citing the risk of conflicts of interest.

Such prohibitions are not unusual. Denver-based libertarian think tank the Independence Institute reported in 2004 that 11 of the state’s 25 largest districts had such policies at the time.

The Denver Public Schools policy, adopted in 1987, states:

An employee elected to the Board shall be required to relinquish employment with the district prior to taking office. Employees are encouraged to consider this prior to running for the Board.

The policy does not explicitly address charter school employees, who aren’t on the district payroll but work for the charter schools themselves.

District officials have said they’ve notified finalists Koger and Korto, a writing teacher at DSST: Cole, a DPS charter school, of the policy, and that legal advice would be sought in Korto’s case.

Education policy experts and observers we spoke to said they believe it’s a good idea for educators to serve on school boards — with some caveats.

“Teachers understand how policies impact students and schools,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “A lot of what school boards are tasked with doing, a lot of what they decide — especially curriculum — teacher knowledge is really important.”

Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center, part of the Independence Institute, said she believes educators can bring a wealth of information to school boards. But she said teachers should not serve on the boards of districts where they teach.

Many school boards in Colorado bargain teacher salaries, so the conflict of interest is clear, Benigno said.

“I personally wouldn’t have any problem with a retired teacher being on a school board, nor a teacher from another district,” she said. “They’re not going to be voting on their own compensation package or other policy that would impact them.”

Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.
Former Jeffco school board member Jill Fellman taught in the district before she joined the school board.

She added that similar policies should be adopted by charter school boards.

Jane Urschel, deputy director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said it’s rare for a teacher to serve on his or her own school board. But it has happened, especially in smaller rural school districts.

“It can work,” she said, adding that the electorate has the final say on who serves on school boards.

Urschel said the association suggests any school district employee who sits on the school board doing the following:

  1. After being elected, send a blanket disclosure to the Secretary of State’s office
  2. Disclose any conflicts of interest as they pop up on the agenda
  3. Do not engage in the discussion around that agenda item
  4. Do not vote on the agenda item
  5. Note the conflict of interest in the meeting’s minutes

But Urschel said teachers who serve on school boards — like all school board members — need to remember they work for a large consistency, not just the folks in their profession.

“Teachers have excellent expertise,” she said. “But they, like every other participant, must understand they represent a full constituency. It’s very hard for school board members to broaden their thinking. It takes a little time.”

What is more common, CEA’s Baca-Oehlert said, is for teachers to work in one school district and serve on the school board of the district in which they live.

One such teacher is Greg Piotraschke. He teaches music at a Jefferson County elementary school and serves on the Brighton 27J school board.

He doesn’t sleep much, but he said being a teacher and serving on a school board at the same time is rewarding.

“I truly do think that having the voice of people who are in the trenches and doing the work gives a lot of insight that the school board can take in,” Piotraschke said. “To shut out education professionals at the table when talking about education would be like shutting out doctors when talking about medical improvements.”

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.