An evening school board meeting had just ended. A stunned majority of attendees began filtering out. Our superintendent of over 12 years, an individual who was a recent quarterfinalist for National Superintendent of the Year, had unexpectedly and abruptly resigned. Cindy Stevenson cited the inability to work with our newly elected school board majority as the reason for leaving our district.
A few people were milling around Cindy after the meeting. As I began to wish her well, she hugged me. Rivulets of tears flowed into my shirt. The board majority of Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams were conversing with their close-knit supporters in the immediate background. I could discern some muted laughter. The moment was surreal.
How could this be? How could an educator who devoted 40 plus years of her life to the Jeffco School District in Colorado, rising up through the ranks from teacher to superintendent, be cast away like refuse?
But, this was only the beginning…
Transparency, accountability, and respect were pushed to the wayside.
From the start, the board majority was hell bent on doing things their way. Voices from the community were routinely ignored or escalated to the point of this board majority using bully pulpit techniques. One of the first agenda items this board majority carried out was to hire their own personal attorney, Brad Miller, to the tune of $90,000 a year. This decision was made behind closed doors. The vote was obvious; 3-2 in favor of their own personal attorney, 3-2 not in favor of a tax paying constituency. Kind of a mystifying move considering that the school board already had, and still has, a district attorney. Hmmm…
After a nation-wide search was performed to the tune of $45,000 for a new superintendent, the search was narrowed down to one sole finalist who had never been a superintendent anywhere. Dan McMinimee was voted in and was given a salary that superseded our former superintendent’s salary by $80,000 a year. Pretty nifty. He was the former assistant superintendent of Douglas County in Colorado. Yep, that is the same district that is held up as one of the national models for privatization. This cleared the path for other upper echelon Douglas County administrators to make their way into upper management in Jeffco with inflated salaries. Pretty cool for them.
It is as if a virus has infected our district’s schools. In our case, the market-oriented disease that overtook the Douglas County School District has spread to the Jefferson County School District.
I was sitting at another board meeting in September of 2014. I could not believe my ears. I could not believe my eyes. Boldly proclaiming the board majority’s vision of a new merit pay system, a chart with some features that reminded me of a graph, made its way to the projection screen. The scrawlings were difficult to interpret. Surely something that would not meet the muster of any math standard that I could see. What was devastating; however, was that this merit pay structure immediately came to be. Surprise!
This virus that entered our district nearly two years ago has certainly changed the climate in our school. Last year, teachers were openly sharing their evaluation travails and trying to figure out how they could become highly effective. Administrators were trying to explain the verbiage of each indicator (there are many) that make up the teacher evaluation rubric. Then, all the teachers have to do is figure out how these indicators translate into real lessons and observable teacher behaviors. It is a circus.
We were told that last year was to be a “hold harmless” year because the teacher evaluation instrument was new. Our board majority was, and still is, so enthralled with merit pay that they decided to retain a third party to investigate this evaluation instrument’s soundness. The third party reported that the evaluation instrument was flawed and that it should not be used for any kind of salary considerations. Our school board majority ignored this finding and decided to make the 2014-2015 year a “harmful” year and instituted merit pay based on the evaluations anyway. This is a very ingenious way of spreading discord and divisiveness.
For teachers, it feels like a climate of “you suck; prove otherwise.” There were well over 300 grievances filed last year related to teacher evaluations.
The current board majority may tout the fact that they did provide teachers with wonderful raises. If one digs down into the details; however, this is simply not the case. Prior to this board majority being elected in the fall of 2013, Jeffco teachers took a pay cut and subsequently accepted 5 years of a pay freeze to make it through the tough times of the recent Great Recession. We were promised that $65 million dollars in cuts to the school budget and partially regained through mill levies in 2012 would be directly distributed to schools and staff in order to support children. The money has instead been diverted in a whimsical fashion by the board majority.
The largest raises were allocated during the “hold harmless” evaluation year. Effective teachers received approximately 2.75%; highly effective teachers received a 4.25% boost. Remember, this was the first pay increase in over 5 years. This year, highly effective teachers received a whopping 1.3% increase; effective teachers received .75%. In comparison, neighboring districts not affected by the corporate reform blight have received raises ranging from 4.9% to 9.3%.
Our board majority found that our new superintendent was “effective” for his first year. One board member who is not in the majority suggested that he receive the same .75% increase that our teachers did. This was laughed off by the board majority. Apparently what is good for the goose is not good for the gander.
Our ingenious board also wants to push the idea of “market- based pay” as well. I imagine this wonderful system would be fit into the merit pay structure somehow. Basically, teachers would be paid according to the market demand for particular positions. Elementary teachers and secondary social studies teachers would be paid a whole lot less than secondary math teachers or special education teachers due to market demand. Just a magnificent way to help teachers feel equally valued, isn’t it?
But it doesn’t stop there. Just recently, the board majority decided to raise the starting salary of new hires. What a great thing, you might say. But, the board majority did not consider that these new hires would be making more than 8 year veterans of the district. A court intervened and had to let them know that this was against the law. As for the teachers that have more experience, well, I imagine the board majority would like to see them leave because they are not readily drinking the Kool-Aid.
Since our board has taken over, over 1,000 teachers and principals have left our district. That is about one-fifth of our teaching and building administration staff.
Our special education department has been “right-sized.” Pretty quaint term. In one instance, profoundly impacted children with special needs were significantly limited with respect to having access to nursing care. When the parents of these students pushed back, our special education administrator became a sacrificial lamb. I suspect she was guided by someone to tighten up the budget. Either that, or she was simply an uncaring maverick and wanted to impress her superiors with her amazing accounting abilities. I know of some special education teachers who are handling caseloads of over 30, including students with severe needs. This is not teaching; this is attempting to keep your head above water with respect to managing an unbearable load.
In the general education realm, classes are swelling to up to 38 students in a class. Class sizes of over 30 students are becoming more of the norm in secondary settings. Yep, this board values the education of kids.
In the fall of 2014, we made the national news for all the wrong reasons. Thousands of high school students walked out of classrooms protesting the proposed curriculum changes to the advanced placement history classes made by board majority member, Julie Williams. She proposed that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” Apparently, we are going to omit the American Revolution, the taking of lives and removal of American Indians from their land, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement if this board has their way. In addition, any students taking an AP History course of this kind would not receive college credit for their efforts. Yep, the board majority has the best interests of the students in mind.
Remember that attorney that the school board majority hired as their personal legal counsel? Well incidentally, Brad Miller has strong ties to charter schools and was a founding member of Charter School Solutions, LLC, an organization devoted to assisting charter schools with making their way into school districts in Colorado. It seems more than a coincidence that $600,000 dollars that were supposed to be earmarked for full day kindergarten for a low socioeconomic population was denied and over $2 million dollars extra was pumped into charter schools in the district.
Now, for those who are screaming “choice is the American way,” I hear your voice. As long as charters are locally governed, fiscally responsible, fill a bona fide need in the district, and are accountable to the school board, I see the validity. From their inception, charter schools were supposed to be creative laboratories started by teachers to spur academic innovation with the goal of sharing ideas with their traditional, neighborhood counterparts. But, when charter schools are operated by noneducators with the sole purpose of poaching children and becoming competitive entities to traditional public schools, it smacks of making money off the backs of children at the taxpayers’ expense.
Many charters do much more harm than good. The charter movement has had the effect of racially and socioeconomically segregating our school system once again. Charters do not enroll the same percentage of students with diverse needs such as special education students, English language learners, and at-risk students. Others smack of being private, religious schools behind a public school façade. Others have rigid zero tolerance policies and unrealistic academic standards that weed out any “undesirables” that might drag down the almighty test scores. It is obvious that charters have morphed into a market-oriented competitive entity in this country and are moving into Jeffco at an alarming rate. All one need do is to study the Jeffco budget. We are supporting some charters and vetting others with a dismal track record. Is this really what we want in Jeffco? Looking at kids like cash cows?
One of the biggest issues that this board majority has is its total disdain for teachers, students, parents, and community members who do not agree with their corporate reform ideology. They are supposed to be public servants, but they are not. They only serve themselves and a minority of people who subscribe to their way of thinking which seems to be the privatization of PUBLIC schools.
It is one thing to read and hear about the devastation left in the wake of the corporate reform movement; it is quite another matter when this horror has been brought to your doorstep.
This is one of the reasons that parents and community members in Jeffco spearheaded a movement to recall Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams. The recall effort this summer yielded double the amount of signatures needed to get the recall on the ballot this November.
As a teacher in this district, I have the greatest regard and respect for all of the parents and community members who have initiated and sustained this movement to get a sane school board in Jeffco that puts the PUBLIC in PUBLIC schools. We are currently walking and talking to community members in order to enlighten them about what the truth is as opposed to politically motivated lies. We are encouraging them to vote. It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with our children. While our board majority is receiving money from The Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity from out of state to fund television commercials and robocalls to sell their snake oil, we are out there talking to people face to face. I have heard that this is how democracy works…
All of the 5 seats are up for grabs for this election. We are recommending Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens for the 2 seats that are being vacated by the 2 board members whose terms are up. We are recommending that the school board majority of Witt, Newkirk, and Williams be recalled and replaced by Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon, and Ron Mitchell. All of these individuals are pro public education and have educational experience. Who better to govern our school district?
Our district has been shattered; we are trying to put the pieces back together.
For those of you reading this, please support us in any way that you can. If you are a citizen of Jeffco, vote. You can find more information at www.JeffcoUnitedforAction.com