Ups and downs
And the overall number of students in top-ranking schools dipped slightly. ( CPR )
Take it to the streets
The drama continues
In a letter to the district, teachers who participated in a "sick-out" last week defended their approach and said the district should have found substitutes. ( Denver Post )
Dollars for schools
State revenue forecasts bring good news but also a potential complication for efforts to restore school funding. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
Columbine High School went into lockout Monday morning over a potential threat. ( 9News )
A Denver school security guard is facing child sex charges over a sexting scandal. ( 9News )
taking the next step
Colorado Mountain College plans to work closely with nearby high schools to help students transition to college-level coursework. ( Steamboat Today )
Busting at the seams
Poudre's school board will consider its options for dealing with facilities and the growth in the number of students. One potential topic up for discussion? Redrawing boundaries. ( Coloradoan )
Work hard, play hard
A Telluride school takes a different approach to student learning -- and to work/play balance. ( The Watch Media )
Freedom of information
Want more information on what your rights are to information? Join Chalkbeat's Nic Garcia and others at a panel on school transparency tonight at 7 p.m. ( 9News )
Colorado tax revenues keep rising faster than state economists can predict them, a trend that might seem to be good news for education but which actually could make it harder to trim the $900 million shortfall in K-12 funding.
That’s because projected revenues are rising fast enough that they likely soon will hit a constitutional trigger that requires refunds of surplus revenues to taxpayers. If the trends continue, the 2015 legislature may have to set aside money in the 2015-16 budget to cover refunds in 2016.
The likelihood of reaching what’s called the “TABOR limit” was a key element in quarterly state revenue forecasts presented to the legislative Joint Budget Committee Monday morning by economists from the Legislative Council staff and the executive branch’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting.
“I’ve been thinking this has been coming for years,” said Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for increased K-12 funding. “It certainly complicates” school finance discussions, she added.
Weil isn’t the only person who’s seen this coming. State economists have referenced the TABOR limit in the last several forecasts. But hitting the trigger always has been far enough in the future that policymakers didn’t think too much about it. Now, it seems, the future is just about here.
The TABOR limit is part of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which required that state revenue growth beyond inflation and population increase in a given year be refunded to taxpayers. That limit was modified by Referendum C, a 2005 voted-approved measure that shelved the limit for five years and eased its restrictions after that.
Legislative economists estimate that Ref C, as it’s called around the Capitol, has enabled the state to retain and spend $9.8 billion that otherwise would have been refunded.
The last TABOR refunds were paid in 2005, triggered by a $41 million surplus in the 2004-05 budget year. The refunds averaged $15 per taxpayer.Do your homework
Refunds receded into the realm of the theoretical after that as the recession pushed growth in state revenues well below annual TABOR limits. The March 2011 forecasts marked the turnaround for revenues, which have been on the upswing ever since.
Legislative economists estimated Monday that $125.1 million will have to be earmarked in the 2015-16 budget to cover 2016 refunds, and $392.6 million will have to be set aside in 2016-17 to pay for 2017 refunds.
Executive branch forecasters estimate the amounts to be refunded in those two years at $133.1 million and $239.4 million. (The two sets of forecasts offer differ in amounts.)
The legislative staff forecast estimated 2016 refunds at $11 per taxpayer, provided through the earned income tax credit and sales tax refunds. The larger 2017 refund would be provided by a temporary lowering of the income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent, plus more sales tax refunds.
TABOR refunds matter to education spending because they require lawmakers to consider yet another demand as they attempt to juggle competing state spending needs.
The state’s school districts took a $1 billion hit in expected funding after the 2008 recession, a impact known as the “negative factor” after the formula used to reduce K-12 spending in order the balance the overall state budget.
District leaders and lobbyists fought hard during the 2014 session to trim the negative factor, and lawmakers did make a $110 million cut. (Get background in this story.) Education interests have signaled their intent to push for trimming the negative factor further during the 2015 session, an effort likely to be complicated by the need to address the TABOR limit.
“It’s going to take a lot of conversation,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the group’s Capitol lobbyist.
The negative factor also is being challenged by a pending lawsuit (see story).
The amount of funding available for education also is a key concern for the state’s colleges and universities. Their state support has recovered modestly in the last two years. But the higher education system also is in the middle of fleshing out a performance funding system mandated by the 2014 legislature. Many in higher ed are worried there isn’t enough funding to allow that new system to operate properly. (Get background here.)
Lawmakers have an alternative to paying refunds – asking voters to let the state keep the money, as Ref C allowed nearly a decade ago.
“It’s time to talk about TABOR’s binding requirements,” Urschel said, adding that it’s “maybe” time to consider a new version of Ref C.
The politics of that are tricky, especially if Republicans take control of the Senate, the House, the governorship or any combination of the three in the Nov. 4 election.
“This is going to a fun session,” Weil said of 2015, with a hint of irony in her voice.Forecast notes
The forecasts released Monday touched on three other topics of interest for education funding watchers.
State Education Fund: This dedicated account, used to supplement K-12 spending, is projected to have between $561 million and $672 million in it for spending by the 2015 legislature. The fund contained more than $1 billion last spring, prompting a tug of war between lawmakers who wanted to spend more on schools and others who wanted to save for future rainy days. The rainy day crowd mostly prevailed.
Marijuana revenues: Up to $40 million a year in excise (wholesale) taxes on recreational marijuana is earmarked for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. Prior marijuana revenue forecasts proved way too optimistic, partly because many users so far have chosen to stick with low-tax medical marijuana. The latest legislative forecast puts excise revenues at under $12 million in each of the next two years and at only $12.3 million in 2016-17. (See this story for more background.)
College construction: The higher education lobby’s big spring 2014 gamble paid off. Scrambling to find campus construction money, higher ed helped push through a bill that earmarked some surplus 2013-14 revenues for buildings – if that surplus materialized. It did, and nine of the 10 projects on the priority list got their money on Sept. 15. The 10th is expected to get its cash near the end of the year after the state’s 2013-14 books are finally closed.
A sea of elementary schoolers crowded into McMeen Elementary School in southeast Denver on Monday morning were eager to tell their superintendent Tom Boasberg what made their school great. “We have good teachers,” said one student. “We respect other people,” said another. “It’s fun!” said a third.
Boasberg had a more specific reason: This was the fifth year McMeen earned the top ranking, “blue,” on the district’s school performance framework, released Monday morning.
“What it means to be blue is you’re learning and you’re growing,” Boasberg said.
Explore Chalkbeat’s database of this year’s school rankings.
The number of schools in Denver earning top marks on the district’s school performance framework increased this year, but the number of schools in the lowest category also increased for the second year in a row.
The district has set a goal of having 80 percent of its students in green or blue schools by 2020, as part of its Denver Plan. Today, 60 percent of students in the district are attending schools ranked either green or blue—down one percent from last year.
“There are some really strong spots and some clear areas of concern,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat on Monday.
Overall, 92 of the district’s 185 Denver schools earned a green or blue ranking, the top two levels. McMeen was one of 27 “blue” schools in the district. That’s part of a steady upward trend, according to district officials. But the number of “red” schools—identified as the lowest-performing in the city—increased again this year, from 25 in 2013 to 31.
The district’s charter schools were disproportionately represented in both the top two and bottom two categories: Eleven of the district’s 26 blue schools, or more than two-fifths of the high-ranking schools, were charters, though charters make up just one-fifth of the district’s schools. At the same time, 11 of the district’s 32 charters were in the bottom two categories.
The district’s efforts to increase the number of schools into the top categories will be complicated by two policy changes that go into effect next year. State and local officials have predicted that scores on the state’s new set of standardized assessments, PARCC, are likely to be lower than scores on TCAP, the current testing system. That’s likely to have a ripple effect on the school’s ratings and accountability measures but the district hasn’t decided how they plan to handle those impacts.
The district is also in the process of adjusting the formula it uses to evaluate schools. Beginning next year, rankings will give more weight to schools’ absolute scores rather than to measures of how much progress students made compared to their peers.
The rankings are based students’ performance on standardized tests and a group of additional measures, including what percent of students reenroll in the school and what percentage of parents respond to a survey.
The School Performance Framework gives schools a grade out of 100 points and a color-coded status. Schools are coded as red (on probation); orange and yellow (on a “watch list”); green (“meets expectations”); or blue. The state, which uses the same terms but a different performance framework, will be releasing its scores later this year. The district also rates its early education programs and alternative programs using specially-tailored frameworks.
The rankings carry the most impact for the “red” schools, which are subject to school improvement efforts ranging from increased professional development for teachers to bringing in entirely new leadership or management.
“We were struck by and disappointed the increased number of red schools,” Boasberg said “There will absolutely be changes in all of those schools.”
Several schools that made progress in previous years slipped back into the lowest ranking, including Schmitt Elementary and the district’s all-boys charter school, Sims-Fayola International Academy.
Sims-Fayola’s charter contract is up for renewal this year. Students made an impassioned plea for the school’s survival at Denver’s board meeting last week.
Boasberg said the district should focus on retaining high-quality teachers in struggling schools by shoring up the supports teachers receive and pay incentives for working in low-performing schools. Teachers currently receive a $2,500 bonus; “that’s not nearly enough,” he said.
At successful schools, Boasberg said, “it’s not a complicated formula – you see good teaching, good leadership and a strong culture.”
Boasberg singled out improvements the district’s middle schools.
“Middle school is where we’ve seen the deepest push on many of our reforms,” he said. He said many of the district’s middle schools, both charter and traditional, are now smaller and higher-performing than in the past.
Three new middle schools—Hamilton, KIPP’s Montbello campus and DSST: Byers — joined the list of schools that met or exceeded expectations. Denver charter network’s STRIVE’s Lake campus dropped off the list, part of a pattern of declines at STRIVE schools.
Boasberg said the performance framework’s measures “all come together to form an overall view of each school. He urged parents and teachers to look both at schools’ performance and at individual children’s scores. “Every parent wants to know, is my kid learning or growing?”
Parents at McMeen today said that the rankings confirmed what they already knew about their school and its teachers.
“When we moved here from Littleton, I remember pulling in and seeing the ‘school of excellence’ banner,” said Shelley Keoppel, who has second and fourth graders at the school. “But it’s really being here, the more you’re involved, that you become more aware of what’s going well.”
GOLDEN — For the second school day in a row, students rallied against a proposed curriculum review committee that they believe — if established — could lead to censorship.
Additional student-led protests are planned for Tuesday morning.
“We want to get the message across that we’re not going to let [the board] mess anything up for future generations,” said Dylan Losche, an Evergreen High School senior.
Superintendent Dan McMinimee said he neither condones nor condemns the rallies, but he would prefer, for safety reasons, students stay on campus.
“I will come to them,” he said after meeting with four students this morning. “I will go to any school that asks.”
The Evergreen High students, about 100 of them, repeated several of the concerns their peers from Standley Lake High made Friday.
They believe a community committee to review standards, assessments, and curriculum — in particular for an advanced history course — being considered by the Jefferson County Board of Education will prohibit lessons on civil disobedience and will only present the nation’s history in a positive light.
Conservative board member Julie Williams, who proposed the committee’s scope of work, said critics are reading too much into the proposal.
While McMinimee has not explicitly said he’s opposed to the panel, he did tell the board at its Thursday meeting the district has 24 different policies to establish and review which text books and lessons are taught. One policy includes how a parent can challenge a book in a library or a classroom.
The crux of the discussion between McMinimee, his staff, and the students, was to explain the board’s process.
Some students incorrectly believe that the board has already taken direct action to curtail the Advance Placement U.S. history course.
“I learned a lot about the process,” said Eric Temple, a senior at Evergreen. He knew the board hadn’t put the committee into place, but was unclear about what would happen next. “I thought I was pretty well researched — more than the average student.”
McMinimee said he hopes the students left feeling that they had been heard.
The students, who said their concerns have not been answered yet, plan on addressing the board at the next regularly scheduled board meeting, Oct. 2.
Meanwhile, Jeffco staff is continuing to monitor its teachers’ substitute requests. On Friday, the district canceled classes at two high schools because there wasn’t enough substitutes to cover the unusually high number of requests. About one-third of the teaching staff at both Standley Lake and Conifer high schools either called in sick or took a personal day in an apparent “sick out.”
All schools were open today. The number of call-ins was not out of the ordinary.
Teachers have grown increasingly frustrated with the school board’s majority. Earlier this month, the board’s chairman introduced a new compensation model that links bonuses to evaluations.
McMinimee said central office staff is working hurriedly to issue guidance to teachers on the compensation changes.
About a third of the teaching staff at two Jefferson County high schools were absent Friday forcing the district to cancel classes for the day. Meanwhile, students at both Standley Lake and Conifer high schools protested a proposed curriculum panel. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, KDVR )
Here's a look at how journalism students at Standley Lake covered the day. ( The Lake via Chalkbeat Colorado )
The principal at Standley Lake is concerned about what's to come. ( CPR )
in other news
Meanwhile, Jeffco officials proposed redrawing school borders, reconfiguring grade layouts, and building a new K-8 school along Highway 93 and 58th Avenue to help alleviate overcrowding. ( Arvada Press )
Join Chalkbeat and Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Monday, Sept. 29, at the Jeffco Fairgrounds for a panel to discuss your rights to information and open meetings in your school district. ( Colorado Freedom Of Information Coalition )
The Denver Post editorial board opined the school board was correct to table the controversial curriculum review committee — and provides a bit of advice if the board seeks to move forward with a community panel to review texts in the future. ( Denver Post )
keeping it in the classroom
At one Colorado private school, no homework means a new approach to learning during school hours. ( 9News )
Rated 'G' for Green
The Boulder Valley School District showcased its most eco-friendly practices to federal officials last week. ( Daily Camera )
The Core debate
CBS's "Sunday Morning" takes a look at the debate over the Common Core State Standards. The Sunday news magazine stops by a Florida and New York school to exam the issues. ( CBS News )
Denver Public Schools is correct to reconsider its bidding process that has left out businesses owned by women and people of color, The Denver Post believes. ( Denver Post )
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Journalism students at Standley Lake High School have been following today’s rally and “sick out” on social media. The school’s news team has pulled together updates from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites you haven’t even heard of yet, to keep us all in the know.
Check out our updated feature with all the best education reading for your Friday afternoon!
[Updated] JEFFERSON COUNTY — School might have been canceled for students at Standley Lake High School, but that didn’t stop about 100 students from rallying this morning to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel.
Jeffco Public Schools canceled class at both Standley Lake and Conifer high schools this morning due to a large number of teacher absences.
About a third of the teaching staff at the each of the two schools called in, district staff said. Jeffco does not have an explicit policy on when to close down a school due to teacher absences. The decision to close a campus is made on a case-by-case basis.
The protests are the latest development in an escalating series of conflicts between vocal segments of the Jefferson County community and its school board. In recent weeks, conflict has centered around a new teacher compensation model the board adopted earlier this month that bases teacher raises on their evaluation ratings, as well as around a proposed new committee to review curriculum on criteria such as whether it promotes patriotism.
“While I respect the opportunity for free speech and expression, I think there are other ways to work through these differences without putting kids in the middle,” said Dan McMinimee, Jeffco’s superintendent, at a press conference today.
McMinimee stressed several times during the press conference that 153 of Jeffco’s 155 schools were still open.
On average, about 410 teachers call in sick or take a personal day each day in Jeffco, with an average of 480 calling in on Fridays. District officials said teacher absences were normal throughout the rest of the county.
District staff was monitoring its substitute teacher request phone line throughout the evening. As of 7 p.m. last night, Jeffco staff reported there was no sign of a mass call-out. But that changed at about midnight when Jeffco began contacting television news stations with the Standley Lake closure.PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Superintendent Dan McMinimee apologized to parents for having to cancel school Friday at two county high schools. About one-third of the teaching staff of those schools were absent.
Meanwhile, the Standley Lake students had planned to walk out of class as a sign of protest at 8:20 a.m. But with the school closed, they met at the corner of 104th Avenue and Wadsworth Parkway instead. Students held posters they made yesterday after school and chanted “my school, my voice,” and “isn’t it great to have an education?”
Students said they were worried the board’s proposal aimed to censor their history classes.
“We can’t let this start with AP U.S. history,” said Ben Smith, a junior. “It will spread to the entire school.”
Board member Julie Williams — who has asked for a community panel to review the Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has been a target of conservatives across the country — said critics have misinterpreted her request. Standley Lake is one of the schools in the district Williams represents.
“All I’m asking is that we look at it,” Williams said at last night’s board meeting.
While the student’s protest was clearly taking aim at the board’s debate over curriculum review, it was less clear why teachers called out sick.
The rumored “sick out,” which was discouraged in an email from district staff yesterday, was not organized by the suburban teacher’s union.
“District leadership has heard from several sources that a significant number of employees may be planning an organized ‘sick out’ on Friday, Sept. 19 and Monday, Sept. 22,” the email to teachers read. “While we hope this isn’t true, we also can’t disregard the impact on our students and schools if this were to happen.”
The email also cited a Colorado law that makes an organized “sick out” illegal. While the district is reviewing all options, leaders were not prepared to “pigeon hole” teachers at the two schools who called in on Friday.
But in a statement, board president Ken Witt blasted the teachers who called in sick, saying that he was disappointed in the teachers’ choice to force schools to close.
“These same teachers that yesterday were wearing ‘Stand Up 4 Kids’ buttons, today decided not to stand up for our students, only one day after the board chose to give them generous performance raises,” he said. “I am saddened to see Jeffco students being used as union pawns, and am heartened that only two schools out of over 140 in Jeffco chose to be a part of this abuse of our students.”
Rumors about the “sick out” swirled throughout Jeffco Public Schools yesterday, including at last night’s board meeting. Teachers familiar with the “sick out” plans, speaking privately, said teachers throughout the district feel their voices have been ignored.
Earlier month the union issued a vote of no confidence in board chairman Ken Witt’s leadership. Witt, in August, unilaterally proposed a new compensation model for teachers that link evaluation scores to pay increases. While all teachers will be see some form of pay increase this year, many kinks in Witt’s model still need to be worked out.
In a statement, Jefferson County Education Association spokesman Scott Kwasny said that while the union was not involved in organizing the protest, officials empathized with the feelings that motivated it.
“This was not organized by JCEA but we certainly understand the frustration teachers and the entire community are experiencing when their elected officials are making decisions in secret, wasting taxpayer dollars, and disrespecting the community’s goals for their students,” he said. “Last night’s discussion about censoring the AP history curriculum is yet another example of this board majority shortchanging our students.”
Students are expected to return to the corner of 104th Avenue and Wadsworth at about 4 p.m. to resume their rally.
Jeffco officials are monitoring teacher absences for Monday. McMinimee said he plans to continue having conversations with teachers one-on-one and in small groups.
“For me, it’s less about punishment, and more about understanding and picking up the pieces and moving forward,” he said. “We have to schools in session. Our kids deserve to have an opportunity to learn.”
One Standley Lake mom, Lindsay Woltz, said she was sorry tensions between teachers and the Jeffco board had come to this.
“Our teachers have their act together,” she said. “I know today was an act of rebellion, but I don’t think they had a choice.”
In their first year, Denver's new school board has adopted a quieter approach to resolving conflicts, with board members working behind the scenes to come to a vote. But their actions have raised questions of transparency. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
rumble in jeffco
A proposed (and controversial) committee in Jeffco would review curriculum at the behest of the board, starting with the new AP history curriculum. It prompted fears of censorship from some parents. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, 9News )
The district's PTA denounced the proposal. ( Denver Post )
But the board tabled a vote on the subject after a high-drama school board meeting, in which audience members loudly signaled their displeasure. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
In other news, the board approved a base salary for high performing teachers of $81,000 but questions still remain about the district's compensation plan. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
Two Jeffco schools are closed today due to a large number of teacher absences. It may be tied to a planned walk-out. ( 9News )
Land of the Free
Longmont students celebrate Constitution Day with a lesson on the First Amendment in schools, taught by CU-Boulder law students. ( Times-Call )
By the numbers
Colorado's child poverty rate dropped for the first time since the 2008 recession. ( CPR )
Dollars for schools
Hayden's school board is asking voters to approve an extension on a 2010 bond measure they say has been essential to improving student achievement. ( Steamboat Today )
Tips of the trade
You have ten minutes with your child's teacher. What do you ask? ( nprED via KUNC )
GOLDEN — The Jefferson County Board of Education tabled plans to develop a new curriculum review committee after a spirited conversation that included a debate about the purpose of studying history.
The board skipped action on the plan, at the advice of legal counsel, after board member Jill Fellman asked if the conversation about the Advanced Placement U.S. history course fell under the scope of the posted agenda topic.
The board’s discussion, which in part included questions about whether the advanced U.S. history course should promote respecting authority and laws, was interrupted several times by a skeptical audience.
“What about Martin Luther King? What about Rosa Parks?” one audience member asked.
Board member Lesley Dahlkemper called the plan, as worded, “too extreme for Jeffco.”
Board member Julie Williams, who authored the proposal for the “community committee,” said critics misinterpreted the criteria she outlined in a proposal to review the history course.
“I am not suggesting that we eliminate any of our factual American history,” she said.
The proposed committee came after repeated attempts by Williams to pass resolutions to curtail the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by Colorado, and their companion assessments.
Williams, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said she wanted the panel to first review the advanced history class because she felt the program was still new enough to curtail if there were questionable content, as she believes.
Williams concerns about the standards and AP U.S. history course echo the concerns of some conservatives throughout the country. Defenders of the history course in Jeffco and say those fears are baseless.
GOLDEN — Jefferson County’s best-paid teachers will earn a base salary of about $81,000 this year as part of the suburban district’s new teacher compensation model.
And those teachers already at the top of the salary range that would be eligible for additional compensation based on evaluations will earn a one-time stipend.
The issue over where to stop annually increasing a teacher’s base salary and begin issuing one-time bonuses has been one of the lingering questions over the new compensation model, which was introduced just weeks ago. And there are still more questions to answer, Jeffco staff told the board tonight, including how the board would like to pay veteran teachers that may join Jeffco in the future.
Teachers should see there raises by their November paycheck, district officials said. Jeffco staff must still resolve any evaluation disputes, align payroll systems, and determine retroactive pay.
In a separate action, the board’s also voted 4-1 to approve a laundry list of unresolved issue from negotiations. Board member Lesley Dahlkemper voted no.
The board’s discussion on the compensation model tonight is the latest in a months-long process. Negotiations between the board and union began in public early this year. By April, the union declared an impasse. A resolution was near at hand as summer approached. But the board’s majority rejected a ratified tentative agreement. Ultimately, Witt proposed his own model, the current framework, in August.
This story was the result of Chalkbeat’s new project BoardTracker, which monitors how Denver School Board members voted. Take a look and tell us if there’s anything else we should look at by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChalkbeatCO.
It’s been much quieter in Denver Public Schools’ board room since the induction of a new board last November — and that might be thanks to the previous board’s high profile spats.
Every issue to come before Denver’s school board has passed in the ten months since a new slate of members was voted in, an examination of the board’s voting records reveal. What’s more, most of those votes have been unanimous.
That’s a distinct change from the workings of the district’s previous board, whose meetings were often marked by contentious debates and split votes. Last fall, Denver voters elected a slate of candidates largely supportive of the district’s agenda for transforming schools.
That came on the heels of several years of high-profile and heated debates between board members that culminated in a divisive process to replace a former board member, Nate Easley, who resigned. In previous years, the board split 4-3 on many issues with the minority votes – former board members Andrea Mérida and Jeannie Kaplan, current board member Arturo Jimenez — frequently opposing the district agenda backed by the majority.
These days, board meetings are far less likely to resemble the climax of a tense political drama. Instead of public spats, board members said they work to resolve disagreements before they ever reach the board table. But experts say that the quieting of those noisy disputes can come at a cost to public dialogue and may be a direct result of the previous years of tension.
“Parents hate it when school boards argue,” said Kris Amundsen, the executive director the National Association of State Boards of Education and a former member of a divided board. “When a number of us moved on, they elected a school board that was committed, most of all, to reaching harmony.”
Barbara O’Brien, one of the district’s at-large members elected last fall, said that’s the feedback she has gotten from constituents.
“What I’ve heard is we’re so glad there’s a board that’s doing its job,” said O’Brien.
Still, discontent over the board’s unified front has cropped up. During campaign season, O’Brien and other candidates were met with suspicion that they would simply rubber-stamp what the district brought before them.
Those criticisms still linger among opponents of the district’s approach to overhauling schools. At a recent community gathering in far northeast Denver, community members criticized the board for failing to listen to their concerns and for adopting a corporate-style reform agenda.
“Except Arturo [Jimenez], they do exactly what [Denver superintendentTom Boasberg] and his staff of mostly non-educators tell them to,” said Mary Sam, a former DPS teacher and community activist, afterwards.
But O’Brien says that she and other board members have been highly critical of the district, behind closed doors.
“Tom [Boasberg] has pushed back on me and I’ve pushed back on him,” she said. “All that’s very healthy when we’re sitting around a table.”
Doing it in public would mean that less gets done, says board member Landri Taylor.
“When I came on in 2013, we spent a lot of time on things that did not make a difference,” said Taylor. “We were stuck in the conversation of disagreement. We have to move forward.”
Board members said most conversation is conducted in one-on-one or two-on-one meetings, or by email, with district staff or between board members. That practice, while within the bounds of the law, may approach actions that have created trouble for other public boards.
The Denver school board, like other public boards, is subject to open meeting laws, which mandate that if a quorum of board members is present, the meeting must be made public. Denver board members said their conversations did not reach that threshold nor did they “daisychain” or meet successively until all had spoken.
The board’s actions are part of a larger nationwide trend towards school boards maintaining public unity, in spite of personal disagreements. Districts elsewhere have adopted policies that prevent individual board members from speaking to the press or to designate a spokesperson. That’s not the case in Denver and isn’t on the table but board members said that they preferred to maintain the collegial spirit.
But Amundsen says that impulse, while a good one, can lead to a loss of transparency and obscure public input.
“If you believe part of the role of the school board is to discuss the issue, not just decide the issue, especially if they’re going to lose the vote, [board members] need to have their say,” she said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean shouting matches in board meeting.
“It doesn’t have to be mean and contentious,” said Amundsen. “It does have to be visible.”
She suggests mentioning in public meetings disagreements that occur behind closed doors.
“It can be, “I want to thank the superintendent because he had originally proposed we make the start time at X time,” Amundsen said. “Thanks to our collaboration, it’s now at Y time.”
Jimenez, the only board member to have submitted a no vote since last fall, agreed with Amundsen’s counsel.
“I know they’re critical and I know they’re thoughtful but they’re unwilling to bring it out in public,” he said.
Jimenez attributes what he calls the “passivity” of the board to the business-style education reform he says pervades the district.
“We’re not the board of a private corporation that acts in unison in public and resolves our conflict in private so we protect our share of stock,” he said. “The board should be a check on the district and we should ensure that there is accountability. I don’t think we’re doing it.”
Part of that, he says, is simply speaking up.
“There is this unspoken line where we aren’t supposed to criticize the superintendent and the district,” said Jimenez. “I hope that changes.”
A proposed panel that would oversee Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, curriculum, and assessments is provoking anxiety among some parents who fear the panel could be a de facto tool for censorship.
That’s because the committee’s first task might be to ensure that revisions of an advanced American history class are patriotic and teach students to respect authority.
The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to decide whether to establish the panel tonight at its evening work session.
The nine-member panel, as outlined by conservative board member Julie Williams, would be appointed by the board and report directly to them on an ongoing basis. The committee would most likely be comprised of lay citizens — not necessarily education and curriculum specialists.
The impetus for the panel is a number of new standards and curriculum questions that have lately proved to be political flash points, including the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and their related assessments.
But, if formed, the new committee is expected to first take up the revised Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has become the target of conservative criticism across the country.
The new version of the course spends more time on early and recent American history and places greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics have complained that the changes are revisionist and present a negative view of the country. The Colorado State Board of Education has debated the topic but has taken no action. Meanwhile, the Texas State Board of Education just took a preliminary step to curtail the course.
As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
Those directions, which Williams said she replicated from another source, has sparked the most conversation among critics.
“Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history?” asked Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson, rhetorically. “Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.”
Williams, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said she recognizes dark times in the nation’s history need to be taught, but she believes the coursework goes further than just pointing out blight spots on the nation’s record.
“There are things we may not be proud of as Americans,” she said. “But we shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place. When [the course questions] our American values and leaves out so many of our founding fathers, that’s concerning to me.”
Taught with fidelity, students should be able to identify and discuss broad themes that have helped create the nation’s identity, including happenings before the British colonies were formed, said Fred Anderson, a University of Colorado professor and one of the architects of the course redesign.
“American history doesn’t start in 1775,” Anderson said. “That’s actually the midpoint. Everything that happens in the national period goes back as equally far. That’s one of the great things [students] should come away with. We’re an amazing nation. It’s an outgrowth of specific historical circumstances. For example, there was a native population that inhabited the land before any European knew it was here.”
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi said that despite the revised curriculum guide, her classes’ content remains the same.
“It’s America’s story,” she said. “But the new approach engages students in a more thoughtful way that does not make the test the only focus of the curriculum.”
Rossi would not directly comment on the proposed committee, but she did say she was disappointed by the approach.
“I’m saddened to think that anyone doesn’t believe Jeffco U.S. history teachers aren’t already engaging students in healthy discussions,” she said. “Do they not think we’re not talking about patriotism? They don’t even know us. They don’t know what we’re doing.”
Williams admitted she doesn’t know. And that’s the point of the committee.
“All I can say is that this has been brought to me by so many of my stakeholders,” she said. “There are certainly enough questions about this. All I’m asking is for a committee to review it. What does it hurt to look at it?”
Critics of the proposal note that Jeffco Public Schools already has two different curriculum committees that might be able to answer those questions.
One is a regular committee made up of administrators who review and make recommendations on new curriculum before its purchased. The second is an ad-hoc committee pulled together when a parent challenges a specific text.
Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students first and general supporter of the board’s majority, said parents should be more involved in curriculum selection in the first place.
“JCSF is very supportive of the move to increase transparency around curriculum and text book review,” she wrote in an email. “I absolutely agree the community should be involved in selections, but I am not certain of the manner and make up of the review committee. For years, the Jeffco board has talked about community involvement in the curriculum selection and text book review, but what that meant in reality was the books were placed in some libraries for a few weeks and no one really knew about it or even knew who was on any relevant committees.”
While the board has engaged in some conversation, including a lengthy study session with standards experts in August, it has failed to act, mostly because board chairman Ken Witt has asked for more information and time.
Because feelings on standards, curriculum, testing and local control can blur ideological lines, it’s not clear how the board will act — if at all. But some observers believe Witt likely be the swing vote on the matter. Fellow conservative board member John Newkirk is likely to follow William’s request.
Only a third of Colorado voters polled in a new survey support Amendment 68, the proposed expansion of casino gambling that would earmark some revenues for schools. A majority of those surveyed do support Proposition 104, the ballot measure that would require district contract negotiations to be held in public. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
Administrators in Pueblo School District 60 are in talks with an independent school accreditation organization to ensure high school graduates can go on to college even if the district loses its state accreditation in two years. ( KOAA )
No way home
It took two Aurora homeowners' associations a decade to agree on building a gate between them so kids could get to an elementary school. ( Your Hub )
Pot and kids
District 51 school board members in Grand Junction say they want to discourage underage use of marijuana but may need state funding to properly attack the issue. ( Daily Sentinel )
That pesky AP test
The Texas board of education on Wednesday moved to require its high school students to learn only state-mandated curriculum — not be taught to the controversial new Advanced Placement U.S. history test. The issue's also controversial in Colorado. ( AP via ABC news )
So you finally get the chance to meet one on one with your child's teacher — now what? Like a good Boy Scout, be prepared: Educators agree that doing your homework before a parent-teacher conference can make a big difference. ( NPR )
Many educators are convinced about the academic importance of kindergarten, but states have widely varying commitments and requirements for that program. ( EdWeek )
Only a third of Colorado voters polled in a recent survey support Amendment 68, the proposed expansion of casino gambling that would earmark some revenues for school districts.
A majority of those surveyed do support Proposition 104, the ballot measure that would require school district contract negotiations to be held in public.
The results were released Wednesday by USA Today and Suffolk University in Massachusetts.
On Amendment 68, 33 percent of respondents support it, 44 percent oppose and 19 percent are undecided.
Asked about Proposition 104, 54 percent of respondents support it, 24 percent oppose and 19 percent are undecided.
Amendment 68 is a constitutional change that would allow location of a full casino at the Arapahoe Park racetrack and possibly at two other locations in the future. A portion of revenues would be funneled to school districts on a per-pupil basis.
Proponents estimate annual school revenues at more than $100 million a year, but critics argue passage would reduce tax revenues for other programs that now are generated by casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. The high-spending campaign pits Arapahoe Park’s corporate parent, a Rhode Island gaming company, against the companies that own the mountain casinos.
Colorado voters have been skeptical of expanding gambling beyond the mountain casinos and the state lottery. Ballot measures in 1984, 1992 and 1996 proposed allowing casinos in Pueblo, various eastern plains towns, Parachute and Trinidad, and all promised some revenue for schools. None of them passed. Voters also soundly defeated a 2003 initiative that would have allowed casino-style gambling at Arapahoe Park and devoted some revenue to tourism promotion. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado backgrounder for a history of sin taxes and education funding in Colorado.)
The two campaigns had predictable reactions to the poll.
Monica McCafferty of Coloradans for Better Schools said, “Once they [voters] learn that Amendment 68 will create a new K-12 Education Fund without a huge tax hike — they support our measure. Each and every day we speak to voters across the state; we are confident that this momentum will carry us into November. The feedback we’re hearing on-the-ground and based on real conversations with real voters is more important to us than a static poll, particularly this early into election season.”
Michelle Ames of the No on 68 committee said, “The more Coloradans learn about this terrible deal for Colorado, the more they find to dislike about it.”
Proposition 104, a proposed change to state law, has a much lower profile than A68, given that the two sides haven’t had the money for advertising campaigns. The prime proponent is the conservative Independence Institute, which bankrolled the petition-circulating effort needed to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Institute President Jon Caldara said, “I have seen polling that puts it even higher. Coloradans know that secrecy is the enemy of good government. This isn’t about unions. It’s about transparency.”
Opponents of the proposition, primarily education interest groups, argue that it’s unnecessary and vaguely written enough that it will lead to confusion and court fights.
The Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll surveyed 500 “likely” voters by phone between last Saturday and Tuesday. The margin of error is +/-4.4 percent. Get more details here.
The poll was one of several released in recent days. They surveys paint conflicting pictures of voter attitudes in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Get the details in this story from our partners at the Denver Business Journal.Voter guide ready to read
The legislature’s non-partisan staff has finished work on the 2014 “blue book,” the analysis of all this year’s ballot measures. You can read it here, and copies will be mailed to the homes of registered voters.
Denver Public Schools is drafting a plan to implement diversity quotas in its contracting if an upcoming report shows a disparity. ( Denver Post )
Investigators say that a Denver teacher had no training in methanol's danger of flash fires before he caused a lab accident that burned several students. ( 9News )
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez outlined his ideas for education, which include greater local autonomy and more choice for parents, in a new campaign ad. ( Denver Post )
the money game
Democratic candidates in races that could determine the make-up of the Senate Education Committee have far out-fundraised their Republican opponents. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
looking backwards and forwards
Colorado Mountain College is trying to work more with local school districts to improve students' K-12 education so that they don't need remediation when they start higher ed. ( Aspen Public Radio )
computers for learning, computers for testing
Teachers in the Weld RE-4 school district say they're excited about a pilot that will bring Chromebooks into their classrooms but say they fear the changes won't be permanent if the computers are used for standardized testing. ( Coloradoan )
fixing the breach
The ACT is working to resolve a breach of personal information that happened last week involving several Colorado Springs-area students. ( Gazette )
take no sides
The state's school executives association decided not to take a position on the proposal to allow casino gambling and use some of the revenues for education. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
New guidance issued by the federal Department of Education would give schools that receive federal improvement grants more options for how to spend the money after a review reported the program had mixed results in boosting achievement. ( EdWeek )
have your say
The state's Department of Higher Education wants to hear public comment on how the state should fund its schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )
The Lewis-Palmer School District 38 will review the way its crisis support system responded to the death of two students in a car crash. ( Gazette )
round of applause
Boulder Valley's sustainability coordinator won a national award for leadership. ( Daily Camera )
Some Southern Colorado school districts are adapting to new federal snack guidelines but others are opting out. ( Fox 21 )
Five years ago, Sebastian Dibildox and his family threw scraps of wasted food away and left lights on carelessly around the house. He and his friends took separate cars to school.
Today, his family has a compost pile and prefers to use natural light. He also carpools with friend (since third grade) Steven.
“In third grade, we did some math projects around carpooling,” Dibilodx said, shortly after describing how worms turn his family’s waste into soil to U.S. Department of Education officials. “And we learned that using just one gallon of gasoline puts 20 pounds of CO-2 into the air.”
Dibildox was one of seven students who shared what he’s learned about environmental sustainability — and other more traditional school subjects — while attending the Denver Green School with representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, the state education department, and the media Tuesday.
The officials stopped by the southeast school as part of the Green Ribbon Schools tour.
The Green Ribbon Schools initiative, run by the federal education department, seeks to showcase schools that are environmentally conscious, academically high achieving, and embracing the social and emotional wellbeing of students.
The Green School was one of about a half-dozen stops in Colorado for the Washington officials, who kicked off their visit earlier Tuesday with a panel in downtown Denver. They were expected to stop by schools in Douglas County, Boulder and Fort Collins.
Students and officials at the Green School highlighted their garden, urban farm, and expeditionary learning, in which students research a topic both in the classroom and in practice. For example, fourth grade students recently jaunted to a grocery store to spend $5 on the food of their choice. They’re working on presentations now about why they chose certain foods.
“Students do better when they’re excited about relevant learning,” said Kartal Jaquette, the school’s sustainability coordinator.
Teachers and students who have embraced the school’s project-based model of “education for sustainability,” Jaquette said, are seeing better results on the state’s standardized tests, which are tied to both school accountability and teacher effectiveness policies.
With rare exception, the Green School either meets or beats both Denver Public Schools’ and the state’s average score in reading, writing, and math.
But one of the kindergarten through eighth grade school’s leaders, Frank Coyne, acknowledged there are some limits to the school’s emphasis on projects and expeditionary learning. The school’s math scores, especially at the middle school, have become stagnant. And administrators are considering a more basic approach to math.
Coyne said school administrators and teachers constantly wrestle with the desire to teach to the school’s model and the high stakes of accountability that accompany tests scores.
But Coyne said, “it’s more than just test scores. It’s more than just a farm and a garden. It’s about how do we teach the whole child.”
Dibildox’s mother, Aylane, who was on hand to watch him read his essay for officials, said the Green School has made her fifth grader a better student and citizen.
“The school has made him conscious of his actions and decisions,” she said. “Students his age can be very self-centered. But he’s learning a global perspective. His actions and thoughts impact the whole world. He’s inspired us — as a family — to make changes.”Denver Green School student shares his sustainability lessons
Colorado’s higher education system is in the middle of trying to figure out how to implement House Bill 14-1319, which sets up a new system for funding colleges based both on enrollment and performance measures like student graduation.
That new law gives the Colorado Commission on Higher Education considerable latitude in designing the details of the system. That body, the Department of Higher Education, outside contractors and several advisory panels are hard at work on all that, and the department also wants to know what the public thinks.
And if you interested in participating, here’s the list of currently scheduled public meetings:
The Colorado Association of School Executives, the advocacy group that represents school administrators statewide, has decided to take a neutral position on Amendment 68, the November ballot measure that would allow expansion of casino gambling and divert some of the additional tax revenues to school districts.
A CASE statement went to some length to explain the decision, saying, “This stance is consistent with previous positions questions related to ‘sin taxes’ for education, but it is more of a practical position than a moral one. It was determined that if CASE officially opposed this Amendment, it could be misconstrued that we think there is not a need for more education funding — which could not be further from the truth. What we do need though, is a steady, reliable source of funding for K-12 education that does not let the public or the legislature off the hook.”
CASE did oppose Proposition 103, the ballot measure that would require school district contract negotiations be open to the public. The group’s statement didn’t mince words: “Proposition 104 sets up a new, one-size-fits-all open-meeting mandate for school district administrators who enter into ‘discussions’ related to collective bargaining. … The lack of clarity will certainly land this in court and will result in litigation and attorneys’ fees. Oh, and districts can do this already, they don’t need a new law to open their negotiations—many already do just that. Proposition 104 is irresponsible and promoted by one interest group (the Independence Institute) who has refused to disclose their donors.”
The group also endorsed 25 legislative candidates, 24 Democrats and one Republican. (CASE only considered candidates that responded to its questionnaire.) See the full list here.
Democratic candidates have raised slightly more than $1 million in seven races considered key to control of the state Senate, including nearly $700,000 in five races of high interest to education.
And the Democrats continue to beat their GOP opponents in the fund-raising battle, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed Monday. The Democrats have raised more than twice as much money as the Republican contenders. (Get race-by-race details in the chart below.)
Given the Democrats’ bare 18-17 majority in the Senate, Republicans have been hoping they can take control.
The Senate races of most interest to education include two in Jefferson County, where two members of the Senate Education Committee are facing challengers. Democrat Andy Kerr, chair of the committee, faces Republican Tony Sanchez, and Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, also a member of Senate Education, is battling Laura Woods. Kerr and Zenzinger have raised more than $170,000 each, tens of thousands of dollars ahead of their opponents.
Two familiar education faces from past legislative sessions, Democrats Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Judy Solano of Adams County, are seeking Senate seats and have raised more than $100,000 each. In a central mountains Senate seat, Democratic rancher and educator Kerry Donovan has raised more than $110,000.
The other two high-spending Senate races involve Democratic Sen. Jeanne Nicholson in Jeffco and Leroy Garcia, currently a state representative in Pueblo.
Democrats also are raising more money in the two contested State Board of Education races. In the 3rd District, former Pueblo schools Superintendent Henry Roman has raised about 50 percent more money than GOP incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction. In the 7th District Democratic, incumbent Jane Goff has huge fundraising lead on GOP candidate Laura Boggs.
In education-related races for the state House, Democrats have amassed bigger war chests in five of seven races.
Select a candidate or candidates to generate bar graphs at the top of the chart. Story continues after the chart.Committees spend on ballot measures; fund candidates
By far the biggest spending on a education-related issue is in the battle over Amendment 68, which would allow construction of a full casino at the Arapahoe Park racetrack south of Aurora, with some of the tax revenues earmarked for K-12 schools.
The fight pits two groups of gambling companies against each other, with the two campaign committees raising more than $16 million each, most of it spent on endless TV ads.
Education-related legislative races always draw the attention of outside campaign committees, most of them affiliated with teachers unions and education reform groups. As usual, the biggest spender is the Public Education Committee, a small donor committee affiliated with the Colorado Education Association.
A separate set of committees, those formed to campaign for school district bond and tax override proposals, are just gearing up. Such committees have been created in 20 districts, but many have registered only in the last month so don’t have to file reports until Oct. 14.
A committee named IAM27J, which is backing the Brighton school district’s $148 million bond, reported raising $11,927 as of Monday. (Get the full story here on 2014’s district elections.)
Key to chart: SDC means small donor committee, usually funded by dues or small contributions from a large number of people. IE means independent expenditure committee, which can spend for or against candidates, but spending can’t be coordinated with campaigns. PAC means political action committee, which can contribute directly to candidates.