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

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”