Who Is In Charge

Kit Carson wins SB 191 waivers

The State Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday to grant an innovation application from the Kit Carson school district. A key feature of the plan grants the district waivers from some provisions of Senate Bill 10-191, the landmark educator evaluation and tenure law.

The vote is noteworthy because board members faced a seeming conflict between the 2008 Innovation Schools Act and last year’s educator effectiveness law.

In effect, the board decided the innovation law trumped the effectiveness statute in this case. The decision was doubly interesting because regulations for implementing the effectiveness law won’t be voted on by the board until later this year. In effect, Kit Carson was asking for exemption from rules that don’t yet exist.

Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of education, also warned the board that granting Kit Carson’s request might set a bad precedent by tempting other districts to seek similar waivers. “The department does believe that the potential negative consequences to student achievement across the state outweigh the potential benefits to Kit Carson.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of SB 10-191, in essence contradicted that, saying Kit Carson has unique circumstances that few other districts could copy. Board member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, agreed with that analysis.

Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe
Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe

Kit Carson, about 150 miles southeast of Denver, has 109 students in all grades and 17 teachers on a single campus. Although several schools have sought and gained innovation status, Kit Carson is the first district to apply. Under the innovation law, a school receives waivers from a wide variety of state requirements, including those governing employment, but a school must meet a high standard for teacher, parent and community support for the change before it can apply.

Johnston indicated he thought it would be hard for a district with more than one school to jump those hurdles.

He was the surprise “witness” at the hearing, showing up with aide Greg Carter just as the board started its deliberations very late in the afternoon after a long day of other business.

The senator’s comments sparked a lengthy legal discussion about whether it’s possible to waive SB 10-191 provisions on annual educator evaluations and how teachers can lose non-probationary status.

“The goal was for [the law] that to be a statewide system,” Johnston said. Evaluation and tenure provisions “were never meant to be waived.” Only sections on mutual consent and forced placement were written to be waived, he said.

But Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe and district lawyer Kristin Edger said the innovation act allows broad waivers and allows the state board to reject an application for only two reasons – if innovation status would harm a district’s finances or threaten student achievement.

The waivers “are appropriate and permitted,” said Edger, who works for the Boulder firm of Caplan and Earnest, which has extensive experience representing school districts. She also argued that SBE was legally bound to just consider the impact on Kit Carson, not any possible statewide implications.

The legal riddle was confusing to some board members. Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, even asked that the vote be delayed a month for more legal research and advice.

Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, wasn’t persuaded, saying, “My sense is we ought to vote today. … I don’t see much ambiguity” in the innovation law.

In the end, Berman voted yes. The only no vote was cast by Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District.

Kit Carson plans to set up its own evaluation system to make it easier to recruit and retain teachers in the tiny, remote Eastern Plains district. The proposal includes a longer probation period for new teachers, longer time spans between evaluations than in SB 10-191 and multi-year teacher contracts. The Kit Carson system does follow the mandate that 50 percent of evaluations be based on student growth. The innovation application also includes exemption from teacher licensing laws, but that provision wasn’t part of the legal dispute.

Read the application, part 1 and part 2, and see the CDE staff critique.

Keefe, a longtime advocate for the special needs of rural districts, was elated with the decision, calling it “A great day for democracy and the Innovation Schools Act.” He said he’d expected a closer board vote and was happy the board “had the courage to follow the guidelines of” the innovation law. He also said that if SB 10-191 had contained a rural schools section it probably would have looked a lot like his innovation application. (Previous story on Kit Carson.)

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and aide Greg Carter
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and aide Greg Carter

Johnston told Education News Colorado later, “I’m not overly concerned” by the board vote adding, “I don’t think it’s a scenario we’re every likely to see again.” He said he believes the state board is committed to the overall goals of SB 10-191.

The final irony to the whole issue is that the Innovation Schools Act was pushed by Democratic former Senate President Peter Groff, who held the District 33 seat before leaving to take a job in Washington. Johnston was appointed to fill that same seat and elected to a full term last November.

Asked about that, Johnston laughed and said, “I was going to text Peter Groff and ask him if the innovation act lets you out of SB 191.”

Charter appeals go 1-1

The board voted 6-1 to uphold the St. Vrain school board’s denial of a charter for the Lotus School for Excellence at Longmont. Lotus currently operates a school in Aurora. The St. Vrain board cited concerns about financial practices, parent and community support, and facilities in denying the application

Following an afternoon hearing, the board voted 6-1 to grant an appeal by the Youth and Family Academy, an alternative education charter in Pueblo. The Pueblo City schools wanted to close YAFA after the end of this school year. The decision sends the case back to the Pueblo board for further consideration. A large crowd of students, staff and school supporters jammed into the boardroom for the hearing and applauded politely after the vote.

Resolution urges districts to think creatively

After a fair amount of back and forth, the board voted 7-0 for a non-binding resolution calling on school districts to be innovative in the face of steep budget cuts and consider such changes as streamlined administration, competitive contracting, digital learning, enhanced education options and “performance-based compensation systems.” The resolution originally was proposed by Schaffer.

Arrest reporting rule debated

The board also burned a lot of time discussing a regulation proposed by Schaffer that would require school districts to report arrests and charging of school employees to parents. The board has been fussing over this issue for more than a year and defeated a similar rule last spring. The board will take it up again in April. Text

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.