Future of Schools

Tempers flare at Dougco board meeting

Because of readers’ requests, EdNews is posting full videos of public speakers from Tuesday’s board meeting. See them here.

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s voucher program may be in legal limbo but the issue continues to inflame passions among supporters and opponents of the district’s conservative school board.

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.

Cindy Barnard, a Dougco parent who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has stalled the voucher plan, questioned board members Tuesday about legal expenditures in defending the plan, which she said now total more than $900,000.

District leaders have pledged to use only private donations to defend their voucher pilot as they appeal a Denver judge’s ruling that the plan violates the Colorado Constitution and state law. They’ve raised more than $800,000 for their legal defense fund, according to records provided in response to an open-records request.

But Barnard said that leaves a fund deficit of more than $100,000, a figure the district disputes, and she urged board members to post accurate records of voucher expenses and revenues.

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Her comments angered John Carson, the school board president who has championed the voucher program and who blamed Barnard for the dollars spent.

“I would just like the record to show that you are the cause for those legal expenditures,” he said, and some in the audience began to boo. “You are the cause of those expenditures. You are the cause … period.”

Call for more security at “hostile” board meetings

Barnard said she was happy the private donations were rolling in, noting “I do not want district funds spent on a program that as of today has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional.”

That prompted cheers and applause from an audience weighted, that night anyway, more toward board critics than supporters.

It was one of several exchanges during a relatively brief public comment session that showed the factions formed over vouchers, along with the role of the teachers’ union, appear to be hardening rather than softening as time passes.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot.”
– Katherine Vitale, speaker

One speaker, Katherine Vitale, commended board members for their “tenacity” and said she and other supporters are increasingly concerned about the “hostile” crowds at board meetings. She said a bumper sticker was ripped off her car and other supporters’ cars have been scratched with keys.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot,” she said.

And a visibly upset high school student who declined to give his name accused board members of bullying Barnard and declared, “You disgust me.”

“If you were to do that in the school system, you would be fired, you would be removed from the school as a disruption,” he said. “You are the problem here, not the solution.”

Later, the student said his first name was David and he was reluctant to give his last name because a parent is a Dougco teacher.

“I know that emotions are very high, people are very upset, on both sides,” school board member Meghan Silverthorn said after David sat down. “If we could just take a step back, take a little bit of a deep breath … Let’s engage productively, let’s listen to each other.”

Parents ask for survey responses to be considered

Much of the public comment centered around parent surveys that board members last month declared were invalid because of a low response rate. Of the district’s 76,500 parents, only 4,900 – or 6 percent – filled out the survey forms.

But several parents encouraged board members to consider the responses anyway, reading aloud from positive and negative comments written on the forms.

“I ask that you validate the comments and concerns of parents who took the time to respond to the parent survey last spring,” said Brian White of Castle Rock.

Some critics have charged the district deemed the survey results inconclusive because 55 percent of respondents said they did not support the district’s voucher plan.

Change in plan
  • Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen said the district is changing a July 25 deadline for teachers nearing retirement who are eligible for a severance bonus. Additional details.

Board members did not reply to survey comments. They did, however, answer a teacher concerned about a July 25 deadline for those nearing retirement.

After the recent dissolution of the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, school board members voted to phase out a bonus given to veteran teachers leaving Dougco. Teachers learned earlier this month they had to decide by July 25 whether they wanted to retire and take the bonus.

But Deborah St. Martin, an elementary teacher, said the deadline was impossible to meet because state pension plan officials were unable to process paperwork that quickly.

Superintendent Liz Fagen said that deadline has been changed and teachers will now have until next June to retire and receive the bonus. A letter explaining the change was released Wednesday.

Voucher appeal may drag into next year

Barnard, who is president of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups that sued over the voucher pilot, said there’s some discrepancy in district documents over what’s being charged to the legal defense fund.

For example, the cost of filling open-records requests filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, was moved out of the fund.

Rob Ross, Dougco’s in-house legal counsel, said the defense fund is for expenses incurred by outside attorneys. He said the fund currently has an $8,000 deficit but that the Walton Family Foundation has pledged another $100,000, so the fund will soon be replenished.

Board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional last August and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs filed their responses last week. District and state officials now have until Aug. 3 to reply to those responses, and oral arguments would then likely be scheduled.

Ross said a ruling is not likely until late this year or early next year.

In other action Tuesday, school board members approved the termination of employment for Dougco teachers union president Brenda Smith and four other full-time union staff members. In several large Colorado districts, teachers elected as union presidents leave the classroom but continue to receive full or partial compensation from the district.

Dougco school board members made it clear last fall that they no longer wanted to count full-time union representatives as district employees. Smith said the union had offered to reimburse the district for the teachers’ full salaries, benefits and any other costs – in part to allow union staff to continue in the state pension plan – but the district declined. The union has filed a grievance over the issue.

District officials said they treated union staff like any other downsized employees and gave them the opportunity to apply for classroom positions or enter the substitute teaching pool. One of the six full-time union staff members will be teaching this fall while the others did not seek positions, Smith said. She said they plan to continue representing teachers.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s board meeting

Full video from Tuesday’s board meeting

Part 1 – Speakers Brian White, Trisha McCombs, Lillian Armijo and Beth Kerr
Duration: 8:13

Part 2 – Speakers Laura Mutton, Deborah St. Martin and Katherine Vitale
Duration: 9:19

Part 3 – Speakers Cindy Barnard and Gary Colley
Duration: 8:44

Part 4 – Speakers Pam Mazanec, student named David
Duration: 4:51

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”