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.”

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: