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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:

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 1.53.33 PM

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.”

#GovTest

Where Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker stand on key education issues, from charters to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: (Rauner) Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images; (Pritzker) Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Our conversations with Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) and challenger J.B. Pritzker will be aired on Oct. 3 on WBEZ 91.5 FM.

The race for Illinois governor is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history, and anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has probably seen or heard one of the barrage of ads for the candidates. There have been puppies, toilets, and plenty of barbs over wealth and taxes — and the back-and-forth has drowned out the discussion over where the candidates stand on education, arguably one of the most crucial policy areas facing the state.

To dig deeper, Chalkbeat Chicago is teaming up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for a WBEZ/Chalkbeat 2018 Election Special: Testing the Candidates. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker each have agreed to join us for a conversation about where they stand on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

The interviews will be separate, but will be broadcast back-to-back on WBEZ 91.5 FM on Oct. 3 starting at 8 a.m.  

In advance of the discussion, Chalkbeat and WBEZ asked each candidate for his position on five questions, and we’ve reprinted their answers in their entirety. We’re also soliciting interview suggestions from our readers and listeners. Use this form to submit a question to us, and follow along with the discussion on Oct. 3 using #GovTest.

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What would you ask Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker about education?

Chalkbeat Chicago is teaming up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for a WBEZ/Chalkbeat 2018 Election Special: Testing the Candidates. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker each have agreed to join us for a conversation about where they stand on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

Use the form below to submit questions for the conversations, which will air back-to-back on Oct. 3 at 8 a.m.