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.

Learn more

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

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.