breaking up is hard to do

Jeffco union votes no confidence in board chair Ken Witt

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County parents and teachers rallied outside a school board meeting last spring.

The leader of the Jefferson County teachers union said today the school district’s teachers no longer have confidence in board chairman Ken Witt.

The Jefferson County Education Association’s council, made up of representatives from every school in county, voted unanimously on the issue last night. Nearly every school was represented in the vote.

The vote of no confidence, a symbolic boiling point, was based on similar surveys taken at the school level, according to a union spokesman. The response — from union and non-union members alike — was overwhelmingly unfavorable toward Witt, he said.

JCEA president John Ford in a statement said teachers have grown tired of the “secrecy, waste, and disrespect.”

“We are tired of the one man rule and decisions made in secret by Ken Witt,” Ford’s statement said. “As a parent of three kids in Jeffco schools, I know this will ultimately hurt our students.”

While the vote of no confidence is mostly emblematic, the union is still exploring options — legal or otherwise — to block Witt’s actions.

“Teachers absolutely put kids first,” Ford said later in an interview with Chalkbeat. “But, it’s really difficult to do that if you have a board majority and president that continue to put their agendas before kids.”

The teachers’ vote comes after the suburban board’s majority — made up of Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams — approved a new compensation plan for teachers that ties pay increases to evaluations. Previously, Jeffco paid its teachers based primarily on how much time they’ve served in a classroom and on their individual levels of education.

During negotiations, both Witt and Newkirk said they categorically objected to the former compensation plan that left some of the district’s best teachers without raises. Ultimately, it was Witt who unilaterally proposed the new model in August.

At the same meeting, the board rejected an independent review that was supposed to settle ongoing compensation negotiations between the teachers union and the district. The same review found the teacher evaluation system, used since 2008, to be statistically unreliable.

In response to the vote, Witt said that he was disappointed that the union had chosen to back a compensation plan that would leave many teachers this year without raises and that he was committed to moving forward with his plan.

“This board has acted to ensure all of our public school students – neighborhood, option, and charter – have funding equity.  This board is now acting to ensure all, not just some, of our effective teachers are rewarded,” Witt said in a statement. “I will continue to focus on improving academic achievement of Jeffco students, with an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school.”

Ken Witt
PHOTO: Witt For Jeffco Schools
Ken Witt

Witt’s model has provided plenty of grist for teachers and community members who have long believed the conservatives, who were elected in November by wide margins, plan to follow in the foot steps of the Douglas County School District.

Those fears were reiterated in the statement from union today announcing the vote of no confidence.

“We’ve seen this scenario play out in Dougco over the past few years and the results have not been good,” Ford’s statement said. “Turnover rates in Dougco are high and are increasing at double the rate of the state average.”

The neighboring Dougco school district has been led by a conservative board since 2010. During the last four years, the Dougco board has, among other initiatives, ended a collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union and developed a market-based compensation plan for its teachers.

Critics of the Dougco board claim their goal is push a conservative ideological agenda that doesn’t belong in school board politics. Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen and her board have stood by their reforms claiming their role is to reinvent public education for the 21st century.

Since being sworn in, Witt and other members of the majority has routinely deflected the claims they’re following the “Dougco model.”

“This is Jefferson County,” Witt has said time and time again. “We’re going to do what’s best for Jeffco.”

Teachers, regardless of their union membership, at Jeffco school were asked to fill out ballots like this Tuesday. According to the teachers union, educators overwhelming no longer trust board chair Ken Witt.
PHOTO: Reader
Teachers, regardless of their union membership, at Jeffco school were asked to give union representatives their impression of chairman Ken Witt Tuesday. At one Jeffco school, teachers were asked to fill out this ballot. According to the teachers union, educators overwhelming no longer have faith in Witt’s leadership.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the following: the JCEA representative council took the vote of no confidence, not the cabinet; the council is made up of representatives from every school, not some. But most — not all — schools participated in the vote.

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.”