Advice to New School Board Members – From a Veteran, Jill Fellman

Once again Jeffco School Board Watch was able to get time a current school board member, this time Jill Fellman.  When asked about her time on the board and advice to future board members, her advice was to “listen.”

“LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN!!  Then, be willing to compromise and work together to improve education for all students.  Remember that every decision must be made while considering the needs of students, teachers, schools, and families.  Take the responsibility of being an elected official seriously.  Advocate for needs of Jefferson County schools with other elected officials in county, state and federal government positions. Be active in the community — even at those events that may have many attendees that may not agree with some of your positions — to demonstrate that you are willing to engage respectfully with all segments of our community to pursue the shared goal of what’s best for Jeffco kids.”

Ms. Fellman truly walked the talk with respect to getting out in the community.  Just a few days ago she was seen at Lakewood High School at a student produced play called “Fractured Light”.  This show about struggles students face outside the classroom was powerful.  As Ms. Fellman told us, “I love reading to students, visiting classrooms, talking to teachers, principals, and parents, hearing about the challenges and the joys of learning.  Attending art nights, athletic events, musical performances, watching our talented students engage in their learning bring me moments of great pride.”  She added that as a school board member you help create a structure and capability in the district to teach “the whole child,” which is not just about core knowledge, but life too.

Ms. Fellman came to the board with an interest in budgeting, and to that end has been treasurer the last two years.  Prior to that she was board secretary.  She has been successful in both roles, and helped guide the priorities at the meetings.  “When I first came to the board, there was a presentation on the budget EVERY meeting.  Don’t get me wrong – the school district budget is extremely important.  However, we only had a half-hour presentation on student achievement in four meetings.  That was changed so that EVERY meeting we had a presentation on student achievement while we got regular budget updates in writing.  The change in meeting structure better reflected our values and focus.”

She takes her role as treasurer seriously, and she is a member of the Audit Committee.  In addition, she attends meetings of the Colorado School Finance Project and learned everything she could about school finance.  Her advice to new members: “In an environment where board members’ goals and interests are respected, those members ought to be willing to encourage each other to serve in some positions where they can offer the most experience as well as others where they have an opportunity to grow.”

Her greatest disappointment is that we do not have a plan to deal with the tremendous amount of growth in NW Arvada or West Lakewood.  Assuming the predictions by expert demographers are even close to accurate, the district is looking at an increase of 5,000 – 8,000 students and we currently do not have seats for these students.  There are many schools that are at full capacity and adding students to these schools does not make sense.

“I understand the argument against using Certificates of Participation (COPs) to fund schools but, I strongly believe we MUST have schools for all students who live in Jefferson County and using COPs to finance schools in this situation is not only appropriate, it is also a smart, responsible business decision.  Taking advantage of COPs to build schools is the best solution to the overcrowding we are experiencing now and the extreme overcrowding we will see going forward, unless the board quickly adopts and implements a plan.”

It is worth repeating that listening to input from staff is critical too, as is acting upon their sage advice.  As Ms. Fellman told us, “We had a large number of community members write us emails offering ideas, and we had our staff experts provide us with multiple alternatives to address the growth issues (supported by our superintendent). Unfortunately, despite the continued efforts of two members to find compromise, the board did not listen to our community or our staff experts.  There are extremely few black and white issues that we face.  In fact, most are shades of gray, and in order to best serve our students we need to engage with all interested parties, and actively look for compromise solutions.”

As her four year term winds down, Ms. Fellman knows she will continue to be an advocate for ALL children, right up until the last day of her term.  She has literally spent a lifetime involved in Jeffco Schools.

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up in Jeffco schools, teach here, work in the Jeffco Schools administration, and serve as a member of the Board of Education for 4 years. I have been part of Jeffco Schools for over 47 years.  I am sure to find new ways to continue to advocate for teaching and learning.  I cannot stop caring about this district!”

Hopefully our readers are looking at this critical board election with open eyes, and ears, and are seeking candidates for the next board who will “walk the talk” as Ms. Fellman has over her long career, listen to the community and their peers, and stand up for ALL students.

Stand-Up-Be-CountedNeed a quick refresher on the candidates? Check out this post about Ali Lasell (running for the District 3 seat currently occupied by Ms. Fellman), as well as Amanda Stevens (running for the seat occupied by outgoing board member Lesley Dahlkemper), and recall successor candidates Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon, and Ron Mitchell.

Remember: vote for Lasell and Stevens, vote yes to recall, and then vote for Rupert, Harmon and Mitchell.


 

Reflections from an Outgoing School Board Member

school-crossingRecently we were able to snag some communication time with outgoing Jeffco School Board member and former board president Lesley Dahlkemper.  We wanted to get a clear view from a current board member about what was working and what was not working on the school board.  Future board members, regardless of their political stripes, can learn valuable insights from a veteran.  As a voter, please consider her wins and losses as you contemplate the types of members you’d like to see on the board in the future.

Ms. Dahlkemper’s top two accomplishments were around budgeting and community engagement.  She came in during a time of very tight budget constraints.  “The board collaborated with community members, parents, district leaders, educators and the employee associations to make decisions that kept difficult budget cuts away from classrooms,” she said. “This work was tied with walking door-to-door and phone banking with other parents and community members to pass a modest bond package that addressed immediate needs to keep students ‘safe, warm and dry’ as well as a mill levy package to maintain Outdoor Lab, band, class sizes, and other services, which were at risk.”  It was a strong, collaborative community effort.  It was also bipartisan, and both and both Democratic and Republican parents worked on the effort.

With respect to community engagement, she said, “As board president, I worked with my board colleagues and the Colorado Association of School Boards to draft the policy. An excerpt from the policy states: ‘The board believes that engaging our community is essential to preserving a strong system of public education. The board’s policies and decisions should reflect community values, good educational practice and available financial resources.’ Jeffco is one of only a handful of school  boards with such a policy.”

Unfortunately, community engagement takes more than just listening.  It takes courage to act according to the wishes of the public.  Ms. Dahlkemper explained “My greatest disappointment [over the last two years] was several failed motions during multiple board meetings to fund full-day kindergarten for schools with students on the cusp of free- and reduced-lunch.”

The board was presented with data, many times, about this critical need and impact it makes on children.  During her first two years, the former board did approve full-day kindergarten funding for more than one dozen at risk schools, but the current board repeatedly turned down her motions on a 3-2 vote in the last two years.

Not only should the board listen and act according to the public wishes to the degree they can with budget constraints, they should also listen to each other. Jeffco Schools has had a rich tradition of board members with diverse views who have worked together in the best interests of all children.

In the past, they listened closely to our community to identify priorities.  They followed board policies that required them to study a proposal and ask questions – with a vote always occurring at the second meeting.  “It’s been disheartening to see surprise after surprise introduced at the board table,” she said. “These surprises range from hiring a school board attorney prior to knowing his hourly rate and scope of work to a recent resolution gutting months of work by parent and district leaders designed to better align the district accountability committee to state law to a new compensation system that was never fully vetted with Ms. Fellman, me or employees – as policy requires.”

The message from this outgoing member could not be more clear:  “Listen to the community – including those with whom you agree and disagree. Study the issues. Ask lots of questions. Find common ground and build from there. Communicate clearly – and in a variety of ways – to the public about the board’s rationale for its decisions. Work closely with other board members to come up with meaningful, innovative solutions to complex challenges. Always remember that your decisions affect 85,000 children and the quality of Jeffco’s schools. These decisions have implications for us all regardless of whether we have children enrolled in a Jeffco school. Great schools and great communities go hand-in-hand. It is a privilege to serve on the Jeffco school board.”

As for staying engaged in education, don’t worry.  Besides her full time job in education, Ms. Dahlkemper is involved in her daughter’s school – both its PTA and school accountability committees. As any parent of a tween knows, being a supportive, present parent is key at this time in her daughter’s life.  She will have much more time to do this effectively.

On the fun side, she’ll spend her Sundays reading the New York Times and Denver Post cover to cover in lieu of Board Docs. Most of all she says, “I’m eager to spend more time with my daughter, Grace, and my husband, Mike. It seems like just yesterday we were taking Grace to Rooney Ranch Elementary School for her first day of kindergarten. In two short years, she will be in high school.  In six years, she will graduate from high school. Time is fleeting. I want to be fully present for her and for Mike.”

 

8.27.15 Salary Increase – The Superintendent’s spin on almost no increase

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Everyone can look at data and interpret it how they like, and the communication from the superintendent’s office today about Jeffco teacher salary certainly was one way of looking at the data about salary increases.  Here is another.

Italics denote the communication from McMinimee’s office.  Bold words represent one teacher’s perspective on this issue.

Teacher Compensation Increases in Jeffco Public Schools

Jeffco Public Schools values the efforts and dedication of its teachers and wants to attract, retain, and reward those who help students succeed and make classrooms soar. That’s why over the past two years, compensation for effective and highly-effective teachers has increased.

True, it has increased…but read on.

“Research has demonstrated that more effective teachers can produce bigger gains for our students, year over year,” said Amy Weber, Chief Human Resources Officer. “We want to be a district that hires and retains effective teachers and compensation is a part of that.”

This has been stated repeatedly, but with little actual evidence presented. Not to say it isn’t there, because here is a good study.  More evidence exists, however, for tying student performance to socio-economic conditions.

For the 2015-16 school year, the Board approved $15.6 million in compensation increases from $19.5 million in state funds. Compensation increases this year represent 80 percent of new money from the state. Included in this compensation are increased Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) costs, which represent an increase of $3.7 million in 2014 and an expected $3.2 million this year. PERA is a state requirement that provides a retirement plan to Jeffco Schools’ employees. Implementation of the Affordable Care Act is mandated and ensures that all eligible Jeffco employees are offered healthcare coverage. Compliance with ACA also uses dollars that would be otherwise available for compensation.

True, but not all of this goes to teachers.  The compensation to just teachers was about $5.3 million directly.  Compliance with ACA means we may pay a penalty because the health care coverage offered by the district exceeds the mandate, so it is the penalty for getting a “Cadillac” plan. This should be negotiated with all the employees in the district.  The main problem with the statement above is that it implies $15.6 million is going to teachers alone, and clearly it is not.

“We made some difficult decisions around budget this year given competing budget priorities,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee. “Jeffco has dedicated the maximum dollar amount to compensation from money from the state without sacrificing resources for students and for building needs for increasing the capacity of the school district.”

Well yes, they decided to fund charter school equalization, which was not requested by many Jeffco residents, while refusing to use Certificates of Participation (COPs), to fund a K-8 school in north Jeffco. It may be all the money they freed up, but that was not their only option.

Due to the level of state funding and budgeting priorities, the performance-based compensation increases for 2015 will be, on average, one percent. Although this is lower than last year’s increase, it is the second year of increases following several years of salary freezes.

Yes, but certainly not in line with promises made when 3A passed (the 2012 mill levy override).  And while the average is 1%, is it worth mentioning that the district staff told the board that the Denver Area CPI was 2.8%?  So this represents falling behind inflation, in just one year, by 64%.

In real dollar terms it is a decrease.  In real emotional terms it is a kick in the teeth.

Implemented in the fall of 2014 by the Board, compensation in Jeffco for teachers is now tied to overall performance in the classroom, as measured by an evaluation rubric developed collaboratively with the District, staff, and Jefferson County Education Association, to ensure that all students have an effective teacher in every classroom. In the fall of 2014, “highly effective” teachers received the highest ongoing increase at 4.25 percent and “effective” teachers received a 2.43 percent on going increase last year.

The evaluation rubric was found to be untested for the basis for compensation increases, was found to have no reliability across schools, or even within schools, and a federal mediator recommended it not be used for evaluation, especially in a “hold harmless” year.  The biggest problem with this paragraph is its misdirection.  This happened last year, still did not catch up teachers from the pay freezes and inflation, and is used to get people to forget the prior paragraph.  Teachers will see on average 1%, but the majority will receive less than 1%.

“Jeffco Schools always wants to be able to reward its employees with greater compensation.  Obviously, a one percent raise is not as much as we would like to give, and we recognize that cost of living in Colorado has increased,” said Weber. “To ensure we keep our most effective employees in our classrooms, we are continuing to find ways to increase pay moving forward.”

Then when you bring a compensation plan forward to the board, put some real money behind it.  Regardless of who the board is, if the staff thinks there should be more money for compensation, then ask for it!

After research showed that Jeffco Schools was not as competitive in compensation with surrounding districts, Jeffco Schools also raised starting teacher salaries to $38,000 per year to attract the best teachers for its classrooms. As a result, and to make compensation more fair, compensation for hard-working, veteran teachers also increased to equal levels of new-hire pay, which was something that was not previously done. This means that many Jeffco Schools employees will see raises above the one-percent performance raises.

True, but the pay equalization only came after a hard fought battle in court, which the district lost, and negotiation with the teachers’ association.  Of course, the current communications contractor (Novitas) is not going to bring this up.  We just wanted to make sure our readers know that this came about after pressure, not as a gesture of good will.

The hard work and dedication of Jeffco Schools’ teachers and staff continue to make a huge impact on the lives Jeffco’s students, and Jeffco Public Schools is doing everything it can to reward those who make a difference in the classroom.

Editorial comment: they are doing everything they can to APPEAR that they are doing what they can to retain teachers.  But they are certainly not backing it up with actions.  The board is not required to submit its final budget to the state until next January.  If they really cared about retention, they would open compensation discussions immediately upon being seated after the election.  That would be a way to make a statement about change.

 Keep fighting, JeffCo!


 

7.9.15 In Her Own Words

Recently Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee sent a communication to parents in which he denigrated teachers, saying that “dedicated teachers” were staying, indicating that he thinks teachers who leave are not dedicated.  Let’s hear some factual information instead from an extremely dedicated, highly qualified, and highly effective teacher from of Jefferson County’s excellent high schools.

I am a veteran science teacher with a degree in my field, over 10 years of experience, and a highly effective rating.  I chose to leave Jefferson County because I do not support the direction or the methods of Witt, Williams, and Newkirk.  I left for a district that values and supports its teachers, students, and community members.

The new pay scheme that was introduced by Witt, Williams, and Newkirk does not support the achievement of all students.  It makes it more difficult to teach at high poverty schools and to teach courses offered specifically for struggling students.  It gives teachers no incentive to continue their education.

Teachers need to learn from each other.  The new pay scheme pits teachers against each other to compete for the top scores on their evaluations.  It makes the relationships between teachers and administrators combative when it should be collaborative.

Witt, Williams, and Newkirk chose not to help our neediest students at the point in their schooling when it could make the greatest difference. They chose not to completely fund full day kindergarten to needy kids across the district.  They do not want to invest in our kids.

Due to their interest in a review of the AP US History curriculum, I am worried that Witt, Williams, and Newkirk will try to exercise more control over science curriculum.  I expect that they will try to impose their radical views on the teaching of what they consider to be controversial topics in science:  evolution, climate science, geology, and vaccinations.

Last year, Witt, Williams, and Newkirk showed that they have no intention of working with the teachers to come to agreement over the working conditions in schools.  They rejected the findings of a mediator and instead unilaterally imposed a compensation scheme on the teachers.

I am worried that future changes to the teachers’ contract will cause class sizes to increase.  I am worried that future changes to the teachers’ contract at the high school level will be expected to teach more class sections.  This will leave teachers with less time to work with individual students, develop engaging lessons, and provide feedback to students.

The propaganda machine at the district communications department will do its utmost to spin the facts.  Don’t let them bamboozle you.  Listen to the voices of the people who make up your child’s learning environment.

Note: To minimize retaliation against this teacher we are choosing to allow her to remain anonymous.

Keep fighting, JeffCo!


 

6.22.15 Late June Jeffco Teacher Negotiations Update

I can no longer tolerate the actions/policies of this school board.  I have accepted a job teaching at Monarch High School.

– Chuck Stephen, former Lakewood HS band & orchestra teacher

From the beginning of negotiations with the district, our Teacher Association, JCEA, has been seeking stability and certainty.  The best way to have a highly qualified teacher in a classroom is to have a career path for teachers that encourages them to develop their skills, live in their communities in which they teach, and impact the “whole child.”  This includes not just teaching core subjects, but also electives, clubs, sports, and more.  To that end, the association has been negotiating in good faith since March with designated district staff.  Little progress had been made until recently due to uncertainty over budgets. Now that that has been settled (through another 3-2 vote by our WNW triad of doom), here are some salient points:

  • Teachers with less than or 6 years of experience will receive a pay bump so that their salaries are in line with a new salary schedule for new hires that increases starting pay to $38K and increases 2% a year. Details can be found here.
  • Master’s degrees previously earned after 2012, but not compensated for will be caught up.
  • Hard to fill positions will get some additional money to aid hiring.
  • All other employees will see an approximately 1% increase, depending on their performance rating.

This plan is ONLY in place for the 2015-2016 school year, and there is no agreement on anything else going forward.  As for the certainty that the association is seeking, there is still none.

Now that negotiations are down to four scheduled days (June 29-July 2), it is looking increasingly likely that no agreement will be reached unless more days are added to negotiations.  Many of the open items are the ones that impact whether teachers have certainty in their future career options in Jeffco, such as:

  • District-proposed contract expiration of June 30, 2016, an echo of DougCo’s plan to crush their association.
  • No salary schedule or compensation plan beyond the 2015-16 school year.
  • No agreed-upon plan regarding how school principals will decide about displacement if staffing needs to change.
  • No plan for the use of buildings by the association, or even for the role of a JCEA president.
  • Completely open-ended questions on education of the “whole child,” electives, counselors, librarians, etc.
  • Class sizes (which, of course is a big budget driver)

Chalkbeat has posted many of the documents being negotiated, with “red line” versions available too (scroll past the first part of the article to view them).

Given that the board’s plan was to negotiate from a blank sheet of paper, they have done a good job of making clear their priorities. Their only priority seemingly was, up to a week ago, to get their new hire salary schedule approved.  Now that they have gotten what they wanted, it is clear that any other contract terms are going to be hard-fought for the association.

If we want teachers to not quit the district (more 600 last year, and more than 700 already this year), we need a contract that gives them reasons to stay, with reasons including everything from salary to professional development to respect for what they do for the community.  It is in the interest of the community to have happy teachers because they’re working environment is the student’s learning environment.  The association has repeatedly made clear their desire for a contract is NOT to protect bad teachers.  That is a red herring that has NO basis in facts on the ground.  Watch the negotiations if you have time, so you can see for yourself.


 

Keep fighting, JeffCo!