Analysis

Jeffco contract draft: big on site-based decisions, short on teacher evaluation specifics

New York's Board of Regents voted in committee Monday to replace the Common Core standards with the "Next Generation Learning Standards."

Jeffco Public Schools officials Friday released a 25-page draft contract for its teachers union that puts more decision-making in the hands of school leaders and teams of teachers, lacks details on some of the district’s most important efforts, limits some of the historic privileges of the union, and lasts for less than a year.

The document, which was sent to the Jefferson County Education Association and reporters Friday morning, is meant to focus the work of the committee tasked with creating a new contract, the district’s lawyer stressed. The bargaining teams have until Aug. 31 before the current contract expires.

But the document, which lawyer and lead negotiator for Jeffco Jim Branum has been working on for months behind the scenes, is the most comprehensive work to date to come out of negotiations. JCEA agreed to discuss the document’s contents at 4 p.m., Monday. The association might also bring specific language of its own.

We spent today comparing and contrasting Branum’s document to the current master agreement between Jeffco and JCEA. Here are a few of the noteworthy items we found:

The proposed document is one-fifth the size of the current contract.

A priority for the district is to streamline the contract. Officials suggested early in the process that some provisions were out-of-date and could be struck all together while others could be moved to an employee handbook.

This draft accomplishes that goal.

A side-by-side comparison found 27 different sections of the current contract either no longer exist or have been collapsed into broader sections. Some of those sections include topics on academic freedom and what happens if classroom materials are challenged.

While the contract is a quicker read, many of the sections are short on specifics. For example, the current contract spells classroom limits and how extra unpaid hours teachers may be required to work are to be used. The proposed contract leaves those decisions to individual school committees.

Jeffco removes specific language about evaluation process.

While the details about how teachers are evaluated exist in a policy that’s separate from both the current contract and the new draft, the current contract does include some specific language about how many observations a teacher is to receive and by when.

That’s not the case in Branum’s draft. Instead, the contract says the evaluation system and process will be “clearly defined and communicated to” teachers.

This point is likely going to be a huge rallying cry for the JCEA, maybe even more so than pay increases. Armed with an independent report that found the district’s evaluation system isn’t applied equally across the district, the union has been pushing for evaluation reform. They want stricter guidelines and more training for observers — not less.

While it’s completely possible for both stricter guidelines and more training to co-exist outside of a contract, JCEA is looking to codify as much as it can to provide its teachers with assurances and predictability given the increasing stakes of evaluations.

The contract would expire on June 30, 2016.

Since 1992, the district’s contract with its teachers has ended on Aug. 31, well after the start of the school year. (In earlier years, the contract ran from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.)

The end of summer deadline gave teachers and the district time to workout their issues over a few months without the stress of the classroom.

It’s unclear why the district has proposed this change, other than maybe it wanted to align its contract to its fiscal year that ends June 30.

It’s also unusual for the district to propose only a one year extension of the agreement. Contracts have also historically have been multiyear agreements for many cycles.

District officials declined to explain this change saying, “we’ll be discussing the contract at the bargaining table.”

The union gets a win — for now — in seniority rights for displaced teachers.

One of the earliest signs of tension during this year’s negotiations was around how schools should decide which teachers to fire if their student population decreases.

The union believes teachers with more years in the classroom should get to stay. The district team believed these kinds of personnel decisions should be based on evaluations, not years in the classroom. The two sides dropped the topic in an effort to find common ground on less contentious issues.

For the moment, JCEA’s preferred method of choosing which teachers stay and which go when a school has to cut staff — seniority — remains in the contract. But that’s likely not going to sit well with the district’s conservative school board majority that has pushed evaluations as a decision making tool.

The union’s rights have been scaled back.

Many of the historic rights the union has been given in its teachers contract don’t exist in Branum’s draft.

For example, the union’s right to use school buildings, free of charge is gone. The union’s right to post information on employee bulletin boards? That’s gone too. Also, JCEA is going to have make more trips to Office Depot. The proposed contract doesn’t allow JCEA to order office supplies from the district’s vendors.

What is preserved? one of the first sections in the district’s proposed contract is the recognition of JCEA as the exclusive representative of teachers. That might rub some of the board’s conservative majority the wrong way.

There are no new details on teacher raises.

Any hope for a more robust system to determine teacher raises remain unaddressed in this proposal.

Since the district abandoned the traditional salary schedule last fall, in lieu of a plan linked only to teacher evaluations, some have hoped for a different system. Earlier this spring, the union presented a plan that rewarded teachers with raises for a variety of things including advanced degrees, leadership roles, and time in the classroom.

Not only does none of that exist in Branum’s draft, but under today’s proposal, teacher salaries remain the same until a percentage increase linked to evaluations can be agreed to by the bargaining teams.

How big of a fight will a new system to determine teacher raises be for JCEA given the battles on other fronts? That’s hard to say.

Meet your new ‘professional problem solving committee’ (whatever that is).

Under the new contract language, schools will be required to establish a “professional problem solving committee.” This group will be made up of at least three teachers selected by the school’s staff and administration. The panel will be called upon to help mitigate conflict among staff.

It’s not clear what kind of disputes this group might be tasked with. What we do know is that this group won’t replace a formal human-resource grievance process because that’s outlined elsewhere.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”