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.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.