Uh Oh….Campaign Finance Act Violation?

DeStefanoYesterday, Jon DeStefano, head of the Jeffco Administrators Association, used his Jeffco school district email and district resources to send an email to the principals of all 157 Jefferson County Public Schools, to praise the fact that there are only two candidates running against the three school board incumbents up for reelection in the November school board race. In his email yesterday, Mr. DeStefano states that “This is very good news for Jefferson County Public Schools. The retention of a Board majority insures continued stability for our school district and support for our new superintendent, Dr. Jason Glass.”

Click to enlarge actual email.

Official Email

This endorsement coming from a school district email, using school district resources surely violates the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA). FCPA specifically states that “school materials and equipment such as paper, copy machines, computers, telephones, bulk mailing permits, e-mail, the “pony” intra-district mail system, etc. cannot be used under any circumstances to prepare, post, sort or distribute any materials or information expressing a position concerning an election matter.”

Why would Mr. DeStefano think it is okay to send an email such as this in support of the current school board? Is it a foregone conclusion that every school administrator in Jeffco public schools supported the recall and election of 5 union-endorsed candidates? Is it simply assumed that every school administrator is happy with the status-quo and academic results of the students in Jefferson County?  And lest you argue that Jon DeStefano has no public position on the matter, let us set the record straight. Mr. DeStefano, a former Denver Teachers Union publication editor, former advertising manager for the Jeffco teachers union publication, and past board president of the Colorado Association of School Boards, was a strong and outspoken proponent and staunch supporter of the Jeffco school board recall of 2015. Mr. DeStefano was also embroiled in a recall effort just last year for his own position on the Platte Canyon school board.  The group Parents and Citizens for Education in the Platte Canyon school district initiated the recall process.

Mr. DeStefano served on the Jeffco school board in the early nineties and again in the late nineties and was a member of the board that hired Cindy Stevenson. Having run a number of school board campaigns, one would think Mr. DeStefano is very familiar with the campaign laws. Did he intend to send an email encouraging support for Mr. Mitchell and his compatriots? How many other times has Mr. DeStefano or others used district resources to encourage support for board candidates? How many of our tax dollars have been misused? What will the consequences be for this huge breach of community trust?

Is the New Million Dollar Superintendent Breaking District Policy?

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Did Jeffco’s new superintendent, Jason Glass, follow district policy when he recommended a list of websites and articles as “learning resources” for all K-12 teachers to use when teaching about the Charlottesville incident?   

Did he follow “District Policy IJ”which says that all recommended instructional resources for elementary, middle and senior high schools will be updated and submitted to the Board of Education for approval, and that the viewpoints of citizens, staff and students will be considered in the review/recommendation process? Did he include a multi-step process in which major support resources are evaluated through public comment and three committees?  No, he did not. 

Were citizens’ viewpoints considered when making these curriculum selections?  And how many Jeffco parents were notified of the exact list of resources that Superintendent Glass has recommended? If you would like to see Superintendent Glass’s new curriculum resource guide, it is listed below. To access the entire list, please click on Glass’s onedrive link.

Jason Glass’s Recommended Resources for Responding to Hate Crimes and Incidents of Hate

The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America.  – Washington Post

Why Talk About Whiteness? By Emily Chiariello Summer 2016

Southern Poverty Law Center

NEA Today

Teaching Tolerance

Anti-Defamation League

Educational Resources

Blog about the recent ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA with advice about what the teachable moments are including providing a historical context, understanding the alt-right, the First Amendment and promoting respect, equity and justice.

Strategies and advice for talking with young people about race and racism.

Strategies and resources for talking with students about important stories in the news about bias and injustice.

A guide for educators and families that provide the tools they need to help young people confront hate effectively in the aftermath of hate violence or terrorism in their community.

From Books Matter, a collection of books about race and racism including biography/history, racism, slavery and racial pride.

Relevant Lesson Plans and Curriculum Resources

Facing History and Ourselves

Articles For Educators

On Twitter, the hashtag: #CharlottesvilleCurriculum  is a curated place for sharing curriculum for addressing what happened the weekend of August 13th.

History of Facility Changes in Jeffco – Part I

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During the past year over 10% of Jeffco’s school communities have been threatened with losing their neighborhood school.  This is the first article in a four part series that explores how the school closing process has unfolded in Jeffco over the last decade and what lies ahead.  This first article explores school closing decisions and community engagement from 2008 – 2015.

Many communities were shocked to hear their school was on the closure list presented to the Jeffco School Board January 26th.  This followed the surprise last spring experienced by a dozen communities who found their schools on a closure or consolidation list. Those recommendations came after the board said that schools with enrollment under 300 students were too expensive to operate and should be closed or consolidated to save money.  Last spring’s recommendation was to close Pleasant View and Glennon Heights and consolidate 10 schools (Allendale and Campbell, Kendrick Lakes and Patterson, Parr and Little, Prospect Valley and Kullerstrand, Vivian and Stober) creating five super-sized elementary schools.  Instead of closing schools the board decided to pursue a bond package that would cost tax payers nearly a billion dollars, not fix most buildings, but add second gyms, faux grass and over 5000 classroom seats.

Moving 6th Grade?

Even more confusing was the board’s pronouncement that they would be supporting moving 6th graders out of elementary schools and into middle schools. This made no sense as it would add a dozen schools to the list of those with under 300 student.  Additionally, moving 6th grade to middle school requires tens of millions dollars to add capacity to half of the schools which do not have room for another grade of students. Even more perplexing is why the board would support this multimillion dollar, capacity expanding, expenditure when according to page 26 of the 2015-16 Facilities Condition Assessment there are already over 17,000 empty classroom seats in the district.

How Did We Get Here?

Nearly a decade ago, community input was sought on facility usage after the failure of the 2008 bond and mill that created a “budget crisis”.  After years of declining enrollment and with over 11,000 empty classroom seats, the community rejected tax increases demanding facility changes.  The school board sought community input on facility utilization therefore the Facility Usage Committee was convened and they spent nearly a year learning about the utilization of all district facilities. Over thirty individuals were tasked with studying the use of buildings and creating recommendations for the board to consider.

There were monthly meetings throughout 2009 during which community members learned everything from the condition of heating systems, to the achievement level of each school.

In the spring of 2009, four meetings were held around the district to determine community priorities for the utilization of schools. The committee met throughout the summer and developed a series of potential changes to facility utilization which would optimize space and meet the community priorities.  Ideas ranged from moving 6th grade to middle schools, closing schools, changing school grade configurations, and consolidating schools.  Closing Stober and building a large school on the Vivian campus was among early options.  Feedback was sought on the potential changes through the fall of 2009.  Four standing room only community meetings and thousands of emails and survey answers added additional thoughts to the options.

The committee adjusted their recommendations based on the feedback and presented thirty options to the school board in December 2009.  Those recommendations varied from moving 6th graders to into middle schools in some areas of the district, to closing some elementary and middle schools.  There was a huge outcry against moving 6th grade to middle school so the board took that change off the table pending a district wide study (which has yet to be completed).  That narrowed the options and the final considerations for the board which included closing Martensen, Zerger and Pleasant View elementary schools; and Wheat Ridge, O’Connell, and Arvada middle schools.  

The Arvada City Council wanted to ensure that Arvada Middle school, in a historic building, close to downtown was not closed. They suggested moving Russell elementary students to Arvada middle school, creating a K-8, and closing Russell elementary. That was the only recommendation that didn’t meet strong community resistance.

On January 14, 2010 after hearing hours of testimony and receiving tens of thousands of hour of input, the only major facility change the board approved was closing Russell elementary school and making Arvada middle school a K-8.  This reduced excess capacity by less than 600 classroom seats.

Union Forced School Closures in 2011

In January of 2011, again in response to a “budget crisis”, the board was presented recommendations for closing and consolidating schools. Recommendations again included moving 6th graders to middle school and closing Zerger, Martensen, Pleasant View, Glennon Heights, Thompson and Campbell elementary schools.  The community again voiced opposition to moving 6th graders and closing schools.  On January 20, 2011 the board decided not to close schools or move 6th graders to middle school.  They directed staff to find other ways to become more efficient.

However the board decided to convene closed door negotiating sessions with all of the Jeffco unions, district leadership and two board members.  Behind closed doors, this small group discussed solutions to the 2011 “budget crisis”.  After a couple of closed door sessions the team presented a list of reductions to the board and community in March of 2011 as an all or nothing package.  The board was told all options must be accepted or declined.  The 3% salary reduction and reduced work days Jeffco staff experienced came as part of this package.  Closing Martensen and Zerger elementary schools were also part of the deal, as were raising family fees and adding a transportation fee.

Community members who in January thought they were keeping their neighborhood schools, Martensen and Zerger, learned that these two schools would close at the end of the school year.  Families had very few options for their students as open enrollment round one had closed and most high demand schools were already full.  Parents scrambled, there were few supports for families, and students scattered to multiple schools, breaking up communities.

The board didn’t officially vote to close Martensen and Zerger until the June 2nd 2011 board meeting but everyone knew it was a done deal when it had support of all the unions.  Although the community was promised the buildings would be sold and millions would be saved both schools are still owned by the district. Zerger has been closed and empty since 2011 and Martensen has become the district security headquarters.  Closing Martensen and Zerger removed another 1000 seats from the excess capacity of seats in Jeffco but very little savings were experienced.

2015:  More Facility Changes

Between 2011 and 2015 total district enrollment continued to decline and empty seats in district run schools grew.  In 2015, after months of community engagement both Jefferson High School and Alameda High School became 7-12 schools in attempts to improve achievement and increase community engagement by eliminating the middle school transitions.  At the March 5, 2015 board meeting the vote was unanimous to approve these well-developed plans.  In addition, the board voted to move Stevens elementary into Wheat Ridge Middle School permanently and Stein elementary students to O’Connell for the 2016-17 school year.  Sobesky students moved into the Stevens building taking another 400 seats off the excess capacity list.

In 2015, the board also voted 3-2 directing staff to build a new K-6 in northwest Arvada to handle the rapid growth of students moving into the new subdivisions. The board had directed the staff to use one time excess reserves to be able to pay cash for the new school.  After many conversations it was decided to use the property at Candelas, closest to the largest developments.  This decision would negate the seat reductions and the number of empty seats continued to grow as enrollment decreased across Jeffco.

Union Backed School Board Again Targets Closing Schools

In November of 2015, the union backed school board was elected and facilities decisions were among the first reversed by the new board.  One of their first moves was changing the enrollment plans for the school in the Candelas area to be a K-8 versus K-5 and add onto Sierra Elementary.  In order to pay for this, the board approved debt, COPs, (Certification of Participation) which will cost taxpayers $78 million to payback.  Funds will come from the district operating revenue, money which should be in classrooms.

Next, the board approved Bradford Elementary schools becoming a K-8 school (change from K-6) ignoring the fact that both middle schools in the Chatfield articulation area had excess capacity and another middle school was not needed.  Deer Creek was at 60% capacity and Falcon Bluffs was at 75% capacity.

With these changes and continued district wide enrollment declines, facilities reports continue to show over 15,000 empty seats across the district.

Upcoming articles will detail actions by this new board and which schools may be next on the school closure list.

Jeffco School Board Considers Closing Schools

shutterstock_89934235Closing schools is always an emotional and contentious issue. Breaking apart communities as the district did when closing Zerger and Martensen is hard on everyone involved. While some say schools must close as enrollment declines, others say closings should be based on school performance, as Denver is now implementing. We can all agree these decisions are especially harmful when the community is surprised, not engaged and has no time to propose alternatives as Arvada did when creating Arvada K-8 and moving the Russell students to that school.

The Harmon, Rupert, Mitchell (HRM) Jeffco School board has made school closing conversations this year particularly divisive. Creating a fake “budget crisis” by asking the district to find $25 million for compensation increases and funding them with cuts rather than using retirement savings and underspending, seems to have pitted staff against staff and community against community.  In addition, the recommendations are driven by the board’s adamant direction to move 6th graders to middle school regardless of the negative impact on student performance.  A choice Jeffco has consistently rejected and which would cost tens of millions to implement. Add to that the proposed schools to be closed were announced on January 26th just days before choice enrollment was to close and the decisions are set to be made February 9th giving the community less than two weeks to provide input.

How does this process in any way honor and respect any of the communities? We know it breaks district policies.  Surprising the Peck, Swanson and Pennington school communities is against policy FCB and FCB-R which require at least a six month evaluation & review process. Certainly this rushed process does not allow for district wide conversations where alternatives might emerge.

We have learned there have been a few secret meetings at select schools. We know from media coverage, Peck and Stober held community meetings but only parents and neighbors were invited. Rumors are Pennington and Swanson also had gatherings and that there was a meeting of gifted and talented supporters at Wheat Ridge high school. We also heard there was a meeting at Vivian, one of the most underutilized schools in the district but not on the closing list this round.

Where were the meetings posted? Certainly not on the front page of the district website as would be expected for conversations of this magnitude. They also weren’t posted on the board’s webpage. Were there three or more board members at any of these meetings? If so, has the board broken the sunshine laws? How can there be such secrecy around decisions which will affect nearly every family in Jeffco over the next two years?

There seem to have been no meetings at Everitt Middle school or  North Arvada Middle school which would become homes to all these 6th graders a year ahead of when the board promised the first moves would be made. There also seem to have been no meetings at any of the other elementary schools which might lose their 6th graders next year. Where is the promised transparency and increased community engagement? Why haven’t there been any district wide meetings? Why wasn’t there a community committee to review recommendations as required by district policy FCB-R? We need only look back to 2009 to learn how to engage the community in conversations about facilities.

History Lesson

In 2008, a bipartisan school board asked then Superintendent Cindy Stevenson to create a community committee to review facility needs and make recommendations to the school board.  Nearly 50 community members spent a year learning about the condition, utilization, achievement results and student demographics for every school in the district.  In August of 2009, the committee made some initial recommendations.  Multiple community meetings were held to address and discuss excess capacity and high use of temp buildings, (which are expensive to maintain.)  Potential school closures were part of these thorough community meetings that took place over a twelve-month period.  Thousands attended these community meetings. At the end of 2009 a list of possible school closures, consolidations, and grade reconfigurations were made to the school board. City leaders were engaged in the conversations and recommendations from around the community were included in ideas presented to the school board.

These community meetings provided feedback about how students in center programs would be effected. The board gained a deeper understanding of how to mitigate effects on at risk students and families. Ideas were put forth that staff and the board had not considered. All meetings were listed on the district website, all handouts and information were available to everyone in the community. The entire process was TRANSPARENT.

Why then has this HRM school board not been equally transparent?  Why are they having secret meetings? Why are they not engaging the whole community so we can have the best ideas possible?  Why are they pitting staff against staff, community against community?  Why not use the additional money from the state and the underspend from previous budgets for compensation increases and not create a fake “budget crisis”?  Our communities deserve better and more importantly our students deserve better.