Killing Neighborhood Schools

sad childAmid massive confusion about what changes are actually being proposed in the Arvada articulation area, parents attending the North Arvada Middle School facility plan discussion, expressed opposition to the proposals to move 6th graders to middle schools, close neighborhood elementary schools and build community busting, supersized elementary schools. Additional concerns were raised about the loss of teachers that could happen with the plan, and the reduction in resources that schools will have when they no longer have their 6th grade students.

Among the audience of about sixty, seemingly half were from the Hackberry Hills community and about half were Jeffco staff members. According to the written plan 6th grade general education students from Hackberry Hills will move to North Arvada Middle, while GT students will stay at Hackberry. District staff assured the attendees that was not actually the plan. They asserted that elementary schools east of Wadsworth would change to K-5’s, while schools west of Wadsworth would stay K-6’s. However, the plan also calls for schools in the Ralston Valley area to change to K-5’s, so community questions were not adequately answered and there seemed to be no plan for updating the information provided.

More confusion arose when discussing both the grade configuration and boundaries for Foster and Lawrence elementary schools. In the written part of the plan on page 26 it says 6th grade will be removed from elementary schools east of Wadsworth except Foster and yet the graphic shows Foster losing 6th grade. More confusion came when parents asked about the boundary changes for Lawrence and Arvada K-8, saying the proposal could cause students close to Lawrence to not be able to attend there. Staff again said that was not the intention, but parents were less than pleased with staff’s explanation versus what is in the written plan.

Parents from Campbell and Stober elementary expressed loud opposition to their schools being closed and their students being forced to attend the new supersized elementary schools. Questions arose about how much funding Jeffco would lose because the two title one schools being consolidated could lose title one status. Parents discussed all of the capital improvements made at their schools over the last four years and what a waste it would be to then turn around and close those schools. In addition, many parents expressed frustration that the plan disregards communities and would attempt to force parents from one community to attend a school far from their home. In addition to the potential financial burden of having to pay for a bus, parents expressed concern that they had purchased homes specifically to be able to attend their neighborhood school, and this plan pits Jeffco on a path to close small community neighborhood schools.

More frustration erupted when parents expressed their opposition to moving 6th grade into middle schools. Parents were upset that their children would lose literacy instruction, would have to travel longer distances to schools and that teachers might not be able to teach 6th grade in middle schools. One parent shared that her family moved to Jeffco last year specifically because 6th graders are educated in elementary schools. Another mom said this plan seems to take into account the wall needs of the district but not the heart needs, a reference to the lack of regard to the “community feel” many small neighborhood schools create.

It was clear from the first comment/question that the room was filled with angry community members. The first statement made slammed the board for scheduling community meetings only two days after the plan was made public. Furthermore, this person complained that attempts to ask Jeffco principals for clarity were not able to be handled because staff was not adequately versed in the proposals. Superintendent Dan McMinimee said that the principals had been briefed on the plan on Monday before the board meeting, but it was clear there was not a thorough staff roll out when even the presenting staff couldn’t agree on what the plan contained.

In addition, the staff in the room had a myriad of questions about how the potential changes would affect staffing and job statuses. If 6th graders move to middle schools, concern was expressed that the instrumental music staff would be cut as they would lose half of their students. Staff also expressed concern that specials teachers might be eliminated as schools lose their 6th graders. While central staff said this was certainly not the intention, we all know the funding available to support smaller student teacher ratios does not exist.

Finally, community members expressed dismay in the lack of transparency and community engagement of the current process to provide feedback on the $800 million facility plan. Although there are twelve community meetings scheduled, eight of them are scheduled in June after school lets out and many parents and community members are away for the summer.

Sentiment for the evening seemed to be summed-up by the parent who said this may be a good plan for the walls, but killing neighborhood schools is not a not a good plan for the community.

Will $800 Million Improve Student Achievement?

800 millionEighty people took time from their Saturday morning to come to Dakota Ridge High School to hear about the $800 million dollar facility plan the new school board is trying to sell. Over eighty percent of the people in the auditorium (yes, a mom asked) were parents from Governors Ranch who came to express their dismay that once again, their community was being threatened with a change in articulation areas. They like being part of the Columbine family and don’t want that to change, especially for some seemingly elusive “transportation savings”.  These parents reminded staff that the very long and strong community involved facility process the board underwent in 2009-10 to maximize facility usage, is a far cry from this two month rushed process that the new board seems to have put in place.

Many times throughout the two hour presentation, with questions and answered sprinkled in, community members said they didn’t trust the district and that it would be better if there was a longer process that allowed for community engagement, not during the summer but during the school year (eight of the twelve meetings currently scheduled will happen after schools release for the summer).

Sitting in the auditorium, one would not have known that funding in Jeffco has increased year over year over the last four years. One would also not have known that Jeffco taxpayers in 2012 agreed to increase annual spending by $39 million a year to keep Jeffco programming and agreed to $99 million in debt to invest in facilities (the district ended up getting $117 million dollars from the bond issue). One would have thought that as Coloradans, we don’t care about education, as we refuse to invest in per pupil spending, because we rank so low compared to other states (at least that is what board wants you to think.)

What we didn’t hear is that when they talk about national comparisons for per pupil spending, they use an income based method (yes, they think every individual should spend the same amount of their income on public education, no matter if that person makes $30,000 a year or $3,000,000 a year.) So due to the higher percentage of Colorado’s wealthy residents, our state ranks lower than other states when looking at how much of our incomes we spend on a per pupil basis. But if you look at the actual dollars spent per child in public education, Colorado ranks about middle of the pack.

We did hear “We need more money!”  We heard the suggestion that “we only love our children if we agree to support over a billion dollars in new debt to improve facilities in Jeffco.”  And we heard that “because of the “Negative Factor”, Jeffco has lost over $400 million in funding.”

Listening to the board, one would have thought that every Jeffco student is educated in a building with holes and leaks, and that never before has the Jeffco community weighed in on facility plans.  One might have gotten the impression that a brand new building magically makes public education better and that educating students in larger elementary schools is a much better environment for students and staff.

Not one board member addressed how spending over a billion dollars will in any way improve student achievement. There are a total of 12 community meetings about spending over a billion dollars, and yet none of the conversation is about how to invest those dollars to improve student achievement.

The facilities team presented plans for moving 6th grade from elementary schools to middle schools, but there was no conversation about how much money teachers will have to spend in order to become qualified so that they are able to teach in a middle school. Yes, that is right, teachers teaching 6th grade in a middle school require more education than they do teaching in an elementary school.

But the facilities team did not explain that moving 6th grade out of elementary schools will make elementary schools smaller, giving them less money. How many schools will lose their full time librarian? How many will have to share specials teachers? What other losses will elementary schools feel as a result of losing 6th grade students? How many great 6th grade teachers won’t move to middle schools?

We heard plans to change the Governor’s Ranch boundaries so that those students would no longer go feed into Ken Caryl Middle School and Columbine High School.  That produced an outcry from angry parents and community members that are in angst that the new school board has created a facility plan with absolutely no community input and scheduled community meetings with four days’ notice.  Some of these people remembered the board in 2008-09 that created a district wide community committee, which provided thousands of hours of input into potential facility changes.

It was extremely difficult to determine which parts of the plan the district is proposing to begin with and how each component will affect students in neighboring articulation areas. It was clear the plan is being driven solely by the facilities team and is very disconnected from the actual education happening in our schools.

While it may be a comprehensive facility plan, it is far from the reality that families in Jeffco live. Maybe it is time this new progressive board goes back to the drawing board and starts with a community conversation that actually seeks to maximize the educational opportunities for students.

Feel free to share your thoughts with the board by filling out the Survey Monkey questionnaire on the district’s website.

Jeffco School Board Votes Against Funding Students Equitably

broken promisesAt their study session last night the Jeffco school board voted (watch at 4:33:00) to oppose legislation that would require all students be funded equitably no matter which public school they attend. Saying the board policy allowed them to vote if time was of the essence, board president Ron Mitchell called for a vote to support a Colorado Association of School Boards position to continue treating charter school students like second class citizens. Mr. Mitchell should have read his policies (GP02) as they only allow for votes the first time an item is on an agenda in exigent circumstances.

Exigent is defined in Webster’s as “requiring immediate aid or action”. How does expressing an opinion on potential legislation rise to the level of exigent? If the board had before it an item that would significantly improve student achievement or safety, which required immediate attention, then breaking their promise of transparency would be appropriate. However, weighing in on potential legislation hardly seems to rise to the level of exigent.

How do  Jeffco’s charter school parents feel about the board voting to oppose legislation which promised to treat charter students equitably? Amanda Stevens and Brad Rupert both commented that  ‘…being in the middle of facility conversations they wanted more flexibility.” What does that mean exactly? Will charter parents find themselves blackmailed into supporting facility plans not fair for their students or risk losing funding?

The board also seems to have broken their commitment to listen to the community before making decisions, as they voted on this the first time the item was on the agenda. The board allowed no public comments at this meeting, despite the previous board writing policy that required public comment at all meetings at which a vote would be taken. Will we hear the public outcry expressed over the last two years when it was perceived the previous board did not allow for public input before making a decision? There was certainly no public outcry in February when the board changed their policy from requiring public comment at all meetings with votes to only having public comment at regular meetings. It certainly seems as if we are returning to the years of charter schools being treated as second class citizens and a school board making decisions with no public input. Recall fans are you ready?

PS:  Might we have heard how the new school board really feels about charter schools in the words of Senator Merrifield who said at a hearing on these bills: “I want to get personal. … What’s frustrating [to me] is the concept that charter schools are superior. … The smugness, the superiority …”


Teachers’ Union Wants to Reduce New Teacher Pay

union pay 2What is the real motivation behind the new Jeffco salary schedule for the teachers’ union? Is it to offer a truly competitive salary for the purpose of hiring the best and the brightest educators to teach our children? Is it to retain great teachers in Jeffco? Or is it to treat all teachers like widgets, by giving the same raise to every teacher, year after year, based on years in the classroom and level of education, but not performance?

Remember, the unions’ stated goal at the start of these negotiations was to get ALL teachers, (regardless of performance evaluations) as much money as possible, to move every employee back to a grid, and to prevent any new incoming teachers from making more money than current Jeffco teachers.  The union negotiating team members have said over and over that they want their members to be well-compensated and to at least receive cost-of-living adjustments (which would mean each teachers gets the same percent increase).  The union continues to say teachers were not treated fairly under the Witt-Newkirk-Williams board. But as Amy Weber mentioned at the last two negotiating sessions, 2/3rds of teachers in Jeffco received higher raises under the W-N-W merit-based pay-system than they would have under the former pay grid.  That doesn’t seem to matter to the union though, because paying teachers based on performance is not the way they like to operate.

After the school board gave direction to move back to a steps and levels salary grid (similar structure under Cindy Stevenson), the negotiations teams met this past Monday to begin modeling the cost of putting teachers on this grid. CFO, Kathleen Askelson, explained that of the $16 million in on-going compensation dollars the new board approved, $9.5 million of that would be apportioned to the teachers union, the rest would provide salary increases to the other district employees . Close to $2 million of that is for PERA and health benefits, leaving $7.6 million for on-going compensation increases for teachers.

The district team spent hours upon hours modeling different scenarios that would meet the unions demands of returning to a steps and levels program, while not allowing new incoming teachers to  be paid more than current Jeffco teachers. But placing all teachers back on a grid, giving them a raise, while at the same time meeting the district’s goal of offering competitive salaries to new incoming teachers showed a cost of over $15 million, more than double the $7 million available. The district believes that to attract great teachers from other districts they should be paying for up to 9 years of teaching experience. However, in order to lower the cost of $15 million, the district will have to decrease the proposed number of years of experience that Jeffco is willing to pay for new hires to 5 or 6 years. Unfortunately this will make Jeffco less competitive in hiring new and highly-effective educators into the district.  And even with that adjustment, the district is still close to $1 million over the budget they can use for on-going compensation.

After the teams took time to discuss how to bring the cost of increases down, the union  proposed that the starting salary for new hires be lowered, which they believe will allow more money for the re-griding purpose. Yes that is right, in order to treat every teacher like a widget and make pay increases based on the years of experience and level of education, the union wants Jeffco to lower the starting salary for new teachers. You may remember that the W-N-W board raised entry level salaries for new teachers from $33,000 to $38,000 so that Jeffco could compete with surrounding districts some of which pay new teachers $40,000. In their second year in office W-N-W raised salaries for teachers new to Jeffco from $42,000 – $46,000, and now the union want to undo that progress.

The union then asked that all of the one-time money the new board approved be given to teachers with more than 7 years of experience to get those teachers to a 4% total increase over what they are paid now. In other words, let’s give everyone a 4% increase after spending over $7 million to put all teachers back on a grid.

The district will need to go back to the drawing board and crunch more numbers in order to meet the union’s demands and still work within the budget that was approved. More delays are unfortunate because Jeffco is losing new teachers to other district every day. As Ms. Weber stated during this last meeting, her employment team talks to people on the phone everyday that Jeffco would like to hire, who won’t come into the district for less than a certain starting amount. So much for the union being concerned about attracting great teachers to Jeffco, we are half way through the hiring season and the union wants to lower starting salaries, how is that good for students? How does it respect teachers?

It might be good to remember that most of the teachers on the bargaining team have been in Jeffco for years. Do they remember what it is like to be a new teacher struggling to make ends meet? How does any of this make sense if the true goal is attracting and retaining the best teachers?



Teachers’ Union About To Get Its Payoff From The New Jeffco Board

recall pays off picThe new Jeffco school board is getting ready to payback the teachers union for putting them in office by approving compensation increases of over $26 million or 5%. The board is overturning the staff’s recommendation for compensation increases of three and a half percent, which included two and a half percent in “on-going” compensation increases of $12,425,000 ($10,400,000 and $2,025,000 in PERA increases) and a “one-time” increase of $5,200,000. The new board raised the increases to 5%, approving over $26 million for compensation increases to include $16,119,405 in on-going increases, and one-time increases of $10,400,000. That is a total of over 5% compensation increases despite the rate of inflation being just a little over 1.5%.

Are you getting a 5% raise this year? Is your employer making a 19% contribution to your retirement account? Because it looks like that is the payoff rate for the union supporting the “clean slate” board.

Where in the world did the board find over $26 million to fund compensation increases when the community surveys said there would be an additional $6 million in new funding in 2016-17? Did Steve Bell, a campaign contributor to some of the “Clean Slate” candidates inaccurately project cost increases last year only to “find” that money this year so the union bought board could give large increases?

Some of the one-time money is coming from the $15 million that was supposed to be used to build the new school in Northwest Arvada. You may recall the W-N-W board set aside the 2014-15 underspend to prevent us from have to finance the new school. The new progressive board quickly undid that decision committing us to pay over $70 million in principal and interest for the new school and an update to Sierra elementary. Mr. Bell was excited this board decided to use debt which sent hundreds of thousands to his buddies who sell bonds. Was Mr. Bell also excited because he knew this new board would turn those funds into raises which would find their way into his compensation increase?

Because that is just what this board did. They took that $15 million and put it in the general fund making it available for spending in 2016-17. But instead of investing in textbooks or technology which are needed in many schools this year, or putting more money in the classrooms through student based budgeting, the union bought board will be allocating those funds to raises. Amanda Stevens even suggested that teachers get higher increases than the rest of Jeffco staff members. (Hey teachers’ aides, landscape folks, secretaries and others in the classified union and administrators – Amanda Stevens thinks teaches deserve higher raises than you do.) Superintendent Dan McMinimee quickly advocated for all Jeffco’s staff members to receive equivalent compensation increases, which the rest of the board quickly agreed was a good idea.

Some of the on-going money is coming from funds that were budgeted to cover health care costs increases but won’t need to be spent as the district has revaluated the health care needs. . You may remember that three years ago under Cindy Stevenson, estimates were the district would be increasing costs because of the new healthcare mandates included in Obamacare; the district estimated increases of over $8 million. About $4 million of those increases have already happened and another $4 million were supposed to kick in next year in 2016-17. The staff is now saying that won’t happen. That is about a 1% compensation increase. When did staff know this expense would not increase? Did they know last year and fail to let the W-N-W board know so that  their union backed friends could claim the W-N-W board didn’t give large enough compensation increases? Did staff save this information for this new board so they would have more on-going money to allocate and if that is true, why wasn’t the $4 million included in the community surveys? For that matter why hasn’t the community weighed in on spending priorities for $26 million?

How can this board whine about needing more money when they just approved $26 million dollars or about 5% compensation increases? We all remember it was less than four years ago when the board threatened thirty and forty million dollars in cuts if they didn’t get a tax increase. And this new progressive board, from the day they were sworn in, had been complaining about needing more resources. In fact, the board is scheduled to talk about the possibility of a bond and mill-levy on the ballot this November at their upcoming April 21st study session.

The board approving the money for over 5% compensation increases is exactly what the teachers union had asked for in their negotiating sessions. After the board gave the financial go ahead, the last two negotiating sessions focused more on how the dollars would be allocated.

District negotiators gave into the union demand to eliminate any pay-for-performance compensation plan, and move back to the steps and levels type grid that was in place under former superintendent Cindy Stevenson. The two teams also agreed to remove any differentiation in compensation for teachers rated effective versus highly-effective on evaluations.

In addition, the union continues to put road blocks in the way of attracting highly effective teachers to Jeffco.  Based on the proposed union agreement, no new educator, no matter how stellar they are in the classroom, or how well they performed in their last school district, will be hired at a higher salary level than a teacher that has been in Jeffco for the same number of years, with the same level of education.  The union is proposing a contract that will prevent any “leap-frogging” of incoming teachers to the district.

Is it fair to our children that our district is hamstrung by a union contract that prevents our schools from hiring the best and the brightest? If attracting the best talent to Jeffco means paying them more money than another teacher in Jeffco, isn’t that what we should be doing for our students? Is it fair to Jeffco teachers that have outstanding results, and who go above and beyond what is expected, to compensate them just like the teachers who fall short of these things?  How does that improve student achievement or help make sure that the best teachers want to come to Jeffco?

One of the union’s negotiators Don Cameron repeatedly explained that the union simply wants to make sure their members would be able to keep up with the historical annual rate of about 2% inflation, and suggested that the pay for performance structure didn’t do that. But at the negotiating session a few weeks ago, Executive Director of Human Resources, Amy Weber, asked the negotiating team members around the table to engage in an exercise. She asked them to take the salary they were making 2 years ago, and to then give themselves increases from the old steps and levels table. Next, they were asked to compare what their salary would have been today if they had stayed with the old structure versus what their salary is now based on the W-N-W merit-based pay system. Ms. Weber’s own research showed that 2/3 of educators in Jeffco were in a higher salary position based on that merit-based pay system than they would have been on the former pay grid.  Not surprisingly, no one from the union would share their results from the exercise.

And the 5% increases the board proposed still aren’t enough for the union. During negotiations, as Kathleen Askelson was reviewing Jeffco’s annual budget, JCEA Director of Bargaining and Field Operations, Lisa Elliot, asked about the “underspend” in the budget, and why this line item isn’t available for on-going compensation increase? Ms. Askelson explained that the underspend amount changes from year to year, and that it is scraped together from several departments where monies that were projected to be spent were not spent.  The union proposed that all the underspend be directed toward members’ salaries.  Don’t they get that if the underspend is allocated, cuts will have to made elsewhere?

So not only does the union want the 5% the board allocated now they want an additional $13 – $15 million in on-going increases. This would take us back to the 2007-08 level of increases which led to threats of cuts in 2011-12. Does anyone else see a pattern here? Taxpayers pick up all the increases in retirement costs, give teachers raises that are twice or three times the rate of inflation while teachers work 187 days and all teachers get the same increases no matter how effective they are in the classroom. Anyone feel like they are back in the middle of the Cindy Stevenson era, the decade of lack of student achievement growth seems to have been bought by the union. In other words, a million dollar investment in the recall is looking like it has a 25 times return on that investment for the union. For Jeffco students and families….not so much.