Game changer

Jeffco board rejects fact-finder recommendations; Witt makes new compensation proposal

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Jeffco Public Schools teacher last spring rallied with hundreds of others along Wadsworth Boulevard against the district's board majority. The board majority Thursday night rejected a third party's recommendation to give pay raises to "partly effective" teachers.

GOLDEN — Jeffco Public Schools teachers will continue to work under their 2013 compensation plan after the board of education here rejected the recommendations of a third party to provide salary bumps for teachers rated “partly effective.”

Instead, teachers will receive retroactive pay increases later this fall after the Jeffco Board of Education settles the compensation matter at a later date.

The board’s 3-2 majority blocked a resolution to accept the recommendations of the third party fact-finder that suggested teachers who were rated “partly effective” under the district’s evaluation system be given raises. The fact-finder also recommended that the district and teachers union improve the teacher evaluation tool that they said was not statistically reliable.

Because the board rejected the recommendations from the fact-finder, the final compensation system will be determined by the five-member elected body, as outlined in the district’s collective bargaining agreement. Given the conservative and free-market tendencies of the board’s majority, that could mean a radical shift in how teachers are paid.

During the board’s discussion of the fact finder’s report, board chairman Ken Witt presented his own compensation proposal, which surprised some board members, district staff, and board observers.

Witt’s proposal, characterized as “a lot” by Jeffco Public Schools’ chief financial officer Lorie Gillis, calls for every teacher to make at least $38,000 per year. The current base salary for a first year Jeffco teachers is $33,616.

Further, Witt also recommended compensation be increased based on the most recent employee evaluation ratings. Every “effective” and “highly effective” Jeffco teacher would receive a compensation increase, and “highly effective” teachers would receive a compensation increase that is at least 50 percent higher than the compensation increase of “effective” teachers.

Gillis, who said she had only seen the proposal for the first time tonight, told the board her team would need time to crunch all the numbers.

Jefferson County Education Association executive director Lisa Elliott said she was “flabbergasted” by Witt’s proposal.

“This board majority knows exactly what they’re going to do,” Elliott said earlier in the evening during an interview with Chalkbeat. “They’re just walking through the steps.”

The majority — comprised of Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams — said they rejected the recommendation of the fact-finder because his suggestions were not in line with the district’s goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom.

Additionally, the three continued to raise fundamental concerns that the current pay structure for Jeffco teachers — generally based on a teacher’s number of years in the classroom — was unfair and not competitive.

“We need to explore making pay for new teachers more aggressive to competitive,” Newkirk said.

Minority members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman voted to approve the recommendations, repeatedly citing the report’s claim that the teacher evaluation tool is unreliable.

“There’s a lot of questions marks,” Dahlkemper said.  

Dahlkemper and Fellman also indicated their desire to move beyond the contract negotiations, which they said have had the unintended byproduct of sowing fear and mistrust between many of the district’s teachers and board majority.

The teacher evaluation system has been in place since 2008 and was created by the district and union together. However, this would be the first year teachers’ evaluation ratings would be tied to compensation across the district. The district has piloted a pay-for-performance model at 20 schools.

Salaries for teachers have been frozen since 2010. Teachers agreed to the salary freezes as the district weathered budget cuts from the Great Recession.

The current negotiations are only about annual compensation. The district’s and union’s full agreement expires in 2015.

According to the union, this is the first time the Jeffco Public Schools’ Board of Education has rejected either an arbitrator or fact finder’s recommendation during contract negotiations.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.