Choices, Choices, Choices

board pic budgetWith the new state budget indicating that Jeffco’s budget will be increasing again for the fifth year in a row, we are looking forward to the upcoming board meeting on April 7th, when the new board will give their initial recommendations on budget priorities and on allocating the one billion dollar budget that the Jeffco school district spends.

At the study session on March 17th, the board heard a presentation from the new parent-led District Accountability Committee (DAC) on their research of the root causes across the district that have prevented student achievement from seeing significant improvement.

At the top of the list of concerns is the percentage of 3rd graders that are not proficient in English Language Arts. The new DAC did a thorough analysis, sharing multiple measures which are incredibly alarming. While it is true that expectations where raised last year, it is also true that nearly every measure shows over half of Jeffco third graders have significant deficits. The 2015 PARCC scores showed 56% of 3rd graders did not met or exceed the state performance expectations in English Language Arts. In addition, nearly every sub group of students from Hispanics, to free and reduced lunch students performed significantly below average. Furthermore the district’s new MAP assessments, which were given at the beginning of the school year and the end of the first semester, showed growth of only 5.4 when the expected growth was 7.2 and only 39% of 3rd graders showed the expected growth.

The District Accountability Committee also identified several root causes for this lack of student achievement. Problems range from the professional development not providing the skills necessary for teachers to match interventions to students’ needs, to not enough schools using evidence based instructional practices to promote literacy skills. District leaders are developing plans to address these deficiencies. Clearly these plans will need funding. Whether that is identifying those teachers using best practices and then developing plans to replicate them,  or whether it is spending more time to research professional development that will be more effective….the bigger question is will the new board fund the plans that will actually improve student achievement?

Similar root cause problems were identified for two other priority performance challenges, the second of which was the percentage of 8th grade math students that were “on or above grade level”.  For math, the 8th grade scores were the lowest math scores of all grade levels.  The third priority challenge is that only 28% of Jeffco juniors are meeting the ACT college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects measured.

In both of these areas, the DAC used several different data points to support there being a true need for fast and large improvements. For 8th grade math, the DAC recognized that only 16% of 8th graders taking the 8th grade math PARCC assessment were at or above grade level (this doesn’t include those 8th graders that took the Geometry or Algebra tests). In addition, the MAP assessment showed only 42% of 8th graders made the growth they were expected to make in the first semester and there were gaps in performance for all subgroups except gender. Again, root causes indicate that throughout elementary schools there is a lack of systemic instruction, assessment and grading practices that focus on high level math concepts. The DAC also identified a lack of commitment across the district to ensure consistent differentiated teaching and learning practices which are matched to student needs.

On a related note: Does this mean too many Jeffco teachers are still expecting all students to “get” what they are teaching and therefore don’t modify instruction to fit the needs of their students?  Isn’t that one of the major differences between highly effective and effective teachers?  Maybe that is why the union doesn’t want to differentiate compensation for those exceptional teachers?

The third priority challenge recognized that after spending 13 years in Jeffco schools and having over $250,000 invested in their public education, only 25% of Jeffco juniors met the ACT benchmark for college readiness in all four subjects tested. The DAC also recognized that over 1000 Jeffco students aren’t graduating in four years and of those that do graduate, over 26% needed to take a remedial class before being ready for a freshman level college class. The root causes for these issues mirrored those of the other critical challenges, including a lack of system wide commitment to ensure classroom practices and program choices that give every student the opportunity to successfully complete their Jeffco education.

Again, the big question is, will the board fund the plans and programs that the district and DAC recommend to solve these critical failings, or will they return to the Cindy Stevenson era of investing money in their favorite program of the day or allocating funds to things that feel good but don’t actually help improve student achievement?

You may remember that back in 2014, after a decade of math scores not growing as expected, the former board decided to unanimously set higher math achievement goals. In order to achieve the goals, district staff recommended a change in math curriculum, and the minority report from the SPAC committee strongly suggested the board make investments that would support improving student achievement. After the district evaluated several new math curriculum options, a new math curriculum was adopted and the board allocated millions to purchase the resources and professional development for teachers to use the recommended new program.  This new curriculum had well-documented achievement growth expectations, so the new board can measure if the new curriculum and professional development is producing the expected results.

Similarly in 2014, when the former board voted to focus on increasing the number of 3rd graders who were proficient at reading, district staff recommended investing $2 million in hiring literacy coaches and additional teachers who would work with smaller groups of 3rd grade students to help improve their reading skills.   As a result, that board did invest $2 million in new literacy teachers, coaches and resources that would increase third grade reading scores.

Will this new board take a similar approach and allocate new funding to fix what the district and DAC identify as key factors to improving student achievement? Or will they appease the teachers union by throwing more and more money toward teacher compensation? Or will they fund their pet projects which have no research showing how they will improve student achievement?

With another year of increasing funding expected, will the board continue to say they need even more money and plan for a November ballot measure to increase taxes? Or will they evaluate which programs aren’t working, stop funding things that aren’t helping students, and fund expanding those programs that are working?

Obviously the unions will be asking for increases in teacher compensation and as we have seen from the most recent round of negotiations, the union wants to return to treating teachers as widgets. But as is indicated in the root cause analysis, clearly more highly effective teachers are needed in Jeffco to assure every student has access to lessons which meet their needs. Will the union change their tune and support higher compensation for those teachers truly going above and beyond to meet students’ needs? The previous board allocated over 8% increases to compensation over the last two years and provided highly effective teachers twice the take home increases as effective teachers.

Additionally, the previous board raised compensation for new teachers and teachers who had been in Jeffco for less than six years as research showed those teachers compensation levels were significantly below neighboring districts. Will this board follow that lead and make sure that Jeffco continues to offer competitive salaries so we can attract the best teachers to Jeffco?

If this board is seriously vested in helping students to reach their on-target grade level goals, then Jeffco must have a highly-effective educator in every single classroom, and the board must invest in the resources which actually improve student achievement.

Let’s see if this board is serious about a strategy that puts all of the focus and resources on the goal of improving student achievement.  Or will they be loyal to the financial backers and supporters of their recent election?

 

 

 

Cindy Stevenson’s Early Release Agreement

CindyStevenson

At the last board meeting on March 17th, the new board asked Jeffco Chief Legal Counsel, Craig Hess, to suggest language to modify Cindy Stevenson’s early release agreement to allow her back into the school district before 2018. Craig Hess told the board paragraph seven of the agreement already allows Dr. Stevenson access to district property in the same way the general public has access. But this wasn’t good enough for new board members. Without any conversation about the $200,000 Dr. Stevenson was paid per the agreement, the board asked Mr. Hess to propose new language to allow Dr. Stevenson to come back. Take a look at the current agreement and what was agreed upon by both Dr. Stevenson and the Jeffco school district.

Cindy Stevenson – Early Release Agreement

Is Mr. Bell Misleading Jeffco Voters by Crediting the New Board for Better Bond Ratings?

steve bell 2At the March 2016 regular school board meeting, Jeffco Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell presented his proposal  to commit the district to up to $78 million in loan payments for COPs to pay for the construction of a brand new K-8 school in the Candelas development, along with the addition of 250 seats to Sierra Elementary School.  After attempting to justify doubling the expense of the project  as presented to the former board majority last August , Mr. Bell went on to give praise and kudos to this new board for moving $15 million from the capital reserve fund to the general fund. He explained that the Jeffco school district had received an uptick in their credit outlook for those COPs from Standard & Poors, and attributed it to the “fiscal prudence of this board by moving the $15 million into the general fund.” Listen to the audio below or see the March 3rd video.

Really, Mr. Bell? While that may be what you want the average Jeffco taxpayer and parent to believe, the actual report from S&P paints a different picture. We should in fact thank the former board for the new S&P upgrade. According to RatingsDirect (report attached at the end of article), the report cited strong balance levels, strong reserves, a trend of positive operational performance, and operational surpluses in recent years.

Standard and Poor’s Rating Service has revised its outlook for Jeffco Public Schools from Stable to Positive.  While the District’s long term rating remains unchanged at AA-, it’s encouraging to see that the last two years of a responsible balance of savings and spending has been recognized by a third party.

Many of you recall that District reserves were near an all-time low in 2013 when the WNW board was elected.  Over the course of two years, under WNW’s leadership, reserves increased by $55 million as debt decreased by $54 million, leaving the incoming Board $109 million ahead of the financial situation WNW inherited.

So why is Steve Bell trying to credit the new progressive board for the positive news from S&P?

Remember Steve Bell was hired by Cindy Stevenson in June of 2010, after leaving the bond firm Stifel Nicolaus & Co amidst rumors of wrong doing at the company. As reported in the Denver Post, bond firms are integral partners with school districts working to pass mill levy overrides to pay for bond programs. According to the article “The underwriters’ role in bond campaigns may begin months or years before the election. With the help of political consultants and pollsters, they offer campaign as well as financial services. They identify activists and potential contributors. They compile lists of registered voters and target parents, write direct mail appeals and design campaign logos.”

Is Mr. Bell trying to make the community believe this new board is being fiscally responsible ahead of a November ask for increased taxes?  Is Mr. Bell asking us to believe that simply moving $15 million into the general fund (while incurring $78 million in new debt payments) was what triggered the positive outlook?

Surely Mr. Bell would have guessed that someone in the community would request the actual S&P summary which clearly states: “The positive outlook reflects our opinion of the district’s good financial position and strong operation performance in recent years.”

That’s “recent years,” Mr. Bell, not recent weeks.  It took WNW two years to build up reserves and decrease debt by a total of $109 million.  It took the clean slate board just a few months to increase Jeffco’s debt level to #1 among suburban Denver school districts.

Maybe Mr. Bell didn’t count on us following his actions closely. Maybe he thought no one would notice that in addition to his misleading statements there was also no competitive bid for selling the $78 million in Certificates of Participation payments the new board just approved. Maybe he thought we wouldn’t notice the nearly half a million payment we will be making to the company selling the debt, Baird & Co. Will this payment in turn be used to help convince Jeffco taxpayers the district needs more than the billion a year to run the school district? According to the Denver Post article district “in several cases, a school district paid an unusually high fee for the amount of bonds sold after an investment bank contributed election services to the campaign.” Did Mr. Bell think we wouldn’t notice?

Did Jeffco pay an “unusually high fee” for the COPs ahead of Baird spending money to help get a tax increase passed?

It was Mr. Bell who told us he designed the “long term debt financing” plan so that the district would have to come to the voters every four to six years to ask for more money. Are we seeing this plan in action for 2016?

 

 

Dr. Stevenson Returns to Jeffco?

cindy 1

The possibility of Dr. Stevenson returning to Jeffco will be discussed at this week’s school board study session, courtesy of board president Ron Mitchell.

At the September 21st, 2015 school board candidate forum held at Collegiate Academy in Jeffco, Ron Mitchell said “Cindy Stevenson is a good friend of mine; I have lunch with her fairly regularly.” Cindy Stevenson was also one of the largest supporters of the recall and clean slate candidates. So it should not have been a surprise when at the end of last week’s BOE meeting, board President Ron Mitchell announced that he would like to add former superintendent Cindy Stevenson’s termination agreement terms to an upcoming board meeting agenda.  He said that he understood that there was a clause in Ms. Stevenson’s agreement that banned her from being able to seek employment or volunteer with the district until Dec. 31, 2018. Did Mr. Mitchell learn that at one of his frequent lunches with Dr. Stevenson?

You may remember that Dr. Stevenson who had been the Jeffco superintendent for over a decade announced her retirement the morning after her union backed school board candidates lost the election in 2013. At the next school board meeting, November 7th 2013 she said she would stay through the end of the 2013-14 school year. However within months it was announced she would be going to work for the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) and she asked the new board to release her from her contract seeking to leave the district in March of 2014.

Shortly after Dr. Stevenson left the district news broke that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. There was no mention of whether her diagnosis came before or after she requested to leave the district before the end of the school year.  However it was reported that she would undergo brain surgery in early May of 2014.

According to news reports at the time, as part of the negotiated agreement that honored Dr. Stevenson’s request to leave the district in the middle of the school year, she was paid over $200,000 as part of the separation agreement. We did an open records request for the separation agreement and discovered that Dr. Stevenson was paid for the remainder of the school year even though she only worked through February 21, 2014. She also received $10,000 which was only supposed to be paid if she stayed through the school year and she received an additional $10,000 which was supposed to be an achievement bonus. In addition the agreement made Dr. Stevenson eligible for the district’s supplemental retirement plan as if she had given adequate notice of her intent to leave.

News agencies also reported that there was no non-disparagement clause in the agreement which is frequently included in separation agreements of key employees. Thus, Dr. Stevenson was not prohibited from criticizing the school board. There was also a section of the agreement which prohibited Dr. Stevenson from volunteering or working for the district until December of 2018.

Last week, President of the union backed school board, Ron Mitchell asked Jeffco Chief Legal Counsel Craig Hess, whether it was possible for this board of education to modify that clause in her agreement.  Mr. Mitchell commented that this clause seemed “unusual and pretty mean-spirited”.

However, according to employment experts this type of clause is not unusual. Employers include clauses of this nature to protect against paying a returning employee both a salary and severance pay. We wonder how many other Jeffco employees’ separation agreement include this type of clause.

Mr. Mitchell did not mention why he wanted to know if the board could modify the separation agreement Dr. Stevenson signed, and as we write this article the separation agreement is not posted on board docs,  leading us to wonder why the lack of transparency? In addition, the board agenda says the discussion will be about section 12 of the agreement, which covers Dr. Stevenson’s commitment not to return to Jeffco until after December of 2018. It says nothing about reviewing section 14, which states Dr. Stevenson had 21 days to review the agreement and entered into the agreement “as result of her voluntary choice”.  Nor is there any indication the board will discuss section 22. which says the agreement “shall be binding in all respects upon, and shall inure to the benefit of the heirs and successors and assigns of the Parties.” Shouldn’t this say Dr. Stevenson freely agreed to the terms and understood they could not be changed by future boards?

Is this board trying to lay the groundwork to bring Dr. Stevenson back as Jeffco superintendent, breaching the agreement Dr. Stevenson signed?  If so, how much will this cost the Jeffco taxpayers?  If the board decides unilaterally to terminate our current superintendent Dan McMinimee’s employment without cause, then we must pay him one year of his base salary – costing the taxpayers $220,000. For what? Is Mr. McMinimee doing a poor job as superintendent?  Have the district-wide achievement rates fallen during his tenure?

Dr. Stevenson was one of the single largest financial donors to the Recall and “Clean Slate” campaign. Did she recruit her friend Ron Mitchell to run for the school board? Did she use her checkbook to sway the outcome of the election with the premeditated intent of returning to work in the district?

Let’s not forget that in 2013, during Cindy Stevenson’s tenure, she became the poster child for trying to implement the data tracking system known as inBloom. inBloom was a nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that would facilitate the sharing of children’s personal and very sensitive information with data-mining vendors, with no attention paid to the need for parental notification or consent. The Gates Foundation poured millions into the district for buy-in. Stevenson garnered New York Times headlines for her embrace of the system.  Many parents fought back and in November of 2013, the Jeffco board directed Dr. Stevenson to terminate the inBloom relationship.

And let’s look at the track record of Jefferson County student achievement during the decade that Dr. Stevenson was Superintendent.  From 2006 to 2014, Jeffco’s percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in math, writing and reading declined the more time students spent in the district. In other words, a higher percent of students scored proficient or above in 3rd than in 10th grade every year. During that eight year span, 30,155 10th-grade students scored below proficient in math.  Also during that time period, 29 percent of Jeffco’s graduates who attended a public college or university in Colorado had to take remedial (non-credit) courses, which  means despite the fact students were graduating, they weren’t college and career ready.

Even though there were several schools within Jeffco that were performing very well  and delivering significant improvements in student achievement, the Superintendent, district leaders, BOE majorities and Accountability Committees could not identify or scale up the innovations at those schools to improve Jeffco’s overall academic achievement.   And all this while the district was working with a one BILLION dollar a year budget.

So why does Ron Mitchell want to know if this new board can change the terms of the separation agreement? Please attend or watch this Thursday’s board meeting to hear the discussion that this board will be having on Dr. Stevenson’s agreement. Will Dr. Stevenson be returning to Jeffco?

 

 

 

 

Jeffco Now #1 in Debt

cop debtAfter the new progressive board approved $48 million in debt for about 1000 new seats in northwest Arvada, Jeffco moved into the top spot on the list of suburban districts based on the amount of debt they carry.  The district will now have over $550 million in debt, $76 million of which the taxpayers have not approved. Continue reading