Analysis: Are Sensational Board Majority Stories Distracting From, or Highlighting, the Dismantling of Jeffco Public Schools?

The board majority’s actions keep producing headlines that capture the attention of the general public, and not just those in the school district or others that follow their actions closely. To insiders, it’s a daily occurrence: the board majority or the district’s new top staff make inexplicable mistakes that are alarming, or say or do things that further the idea that their end game is ultimately to privatize the public school system. We suspect that the board majority’s privatization goal stays mostly under the radar.

Still, some of their bizarre actions have captured a wider audience, garnering media attention because they either sit at the intersection of one of our nation’s cultural wars, or because the action would have direct and immediate impacts on a lot of families. Who can forget this sampling of these headline-grabbers?

-Last fall, Julie Williams proposes a committee to review the AP U.S. History course out of concerns that the course is not patriotic enough and emphasizes social conflict and civil disobedience. This is followed by mass student walkouts during which Ken Witt calls the students “pawns.”

-This winter, John Newkirk and Dan McMinimee attend and speak at a community forum hosted by the Evergreen Tea Party and co-hosted by the “American Freedom Party,” an avowed white supremacist party that does have a foothold in Colorado and a presence in Jeffco. Although labeled a mistake, questions remain about how such a mistake could possibly have been made and why no one caught it.

-This spring, John Newkirk proposes jettisoning large portions of a district plan to address underperforming schools in the Jefferson articulation area in favor of moving two other schools without adequate research, vetting, or analysis, and for reasons that were not clear. Sustained outrage over a lack of thought or planning around the proposal causes the board to scrap the idea, and even the members of the community group that had originally proposed the alternative rescinded their support of the plan.

-Last week, Julie Williams shares a message on her Facebook page that promotes far-right views about the “Day of Silence,” including the suggestion that parents keep their kids home from school because the Day of Silence “teach[es] children to support and embrace the unnatural and unhealthy homosexual-bisexual-transsexual agenda.” Mass media and social media again catch fire over these comments. She later apologizes, saying she hadn’t read the post before reposting it and calling it a mistake. Nevertheless, see above (the white supremacist group). That’s a lot of accidents in a few months.

This is just a sampling. To be sure, these are important issues that deserve scrutiny. They offer a window into the board majority’s lack of competency and naked political motivations. They also each ultimately have real, practical effects on our students, teachers, and the community.

Nevertheless, we wonder: are these stories making the general public more watchful?

Or are these tabloid stories intended to distract the general public from the more general, policy-oriented steps that the board is taking to seemingly to dismantle the schools in order to make way for a private system?

After all, as many “insiders” realize, the board is not behaving very conservatively. It approves loans to poorly performing charters, often doesn’t follow its own governance policies, and its key staff appears to be hired more for political reasons than for their merit. Even more concerning, staff morale appears to be at an all-time low. Many of our most talented teachers are leaving at a record clip, while the board majority continues to fight with student groups on another front.

Everything is run through a legal filter that lacks transparency, and the board majority seems to think that the teachers’ association serves only nefarious purposes, rather than working for reasonable working conditions so that our teachers can concentrate on teaching. They put off building new public schools despite the exhortations of long-time key staff and local business leaders about a coming train wreck. Thinking that they have a mandate (and almost unlimited outside funding), the majority keeps doing whatever they want, claiming to listen to the community when in fact it appears to be the same few inside supporters appearing at public comment, and a whole lot of money backing them from places like Texas and Colorado Springs.

The general public knows the shocking headlines, but do they really understand what’s happening to our district over the long-term? If they do understand, will it be enough to withstand the avalanche of Koch and related money coming for this fall’s elections?

One could argue that the sensational headlines put the general public on notice and create an air of distrust. While many voters are still entirely disengaged with what’s happening with our school board, more and more people have heard one or more of these troubling tales. If an uninformed and uninvolved voter hears one of these stories, unfortunately it may be easy to dismiss as an isolated incident. On the other hand, when the stories start adding up, it creates an atmosphere of distrust for the board majority, and then suddenly the majority’s other decisions don’t seem as trustworthy to the general public either. That’s a lot to overcome.

An opposite argument can also be made. Because the media hasn’t been covering plummeting teacher morale or the board’s financial irresponsibility, voters with little connection to the schools might think of the board as bumbling, but generally headed in the right direction. Does the average voter really care that the board rejected the findings of a neutral federal fact-finder, no matter how important that decision was to our community? Do the majority of voters strongly oppose tying pay to performance? (Do they even kow how pay for performance works?) Are they concerned about the treatment of public comment time at board meetings?

Some are aware, but we think that many are not. Does all the coverage of the sensational stories make the general public think that there’s not more going on, because the attention is diverted? Do voters not see that the board majority is being coached to dismantle the schools slowly, and mostly non-sensationally? Or are they already too saturated with the sensational stories rapidly cascading out of the district to realize there is a deeper story?

Whatever the case may be, we don’t think that Jeffco voters will be pleased to wake up with a decayed school system and most of their best teachers gone. We don’t think that businesses will be happy, once the real estate boom has slowed, to learn that people don’t want to settle down or do business in Jeffco because the school system is not highly regarded. We do not want to be associated with incompetent and partisan leadership. We don’t think that Jeffco wants their schools to be modeled in cookie-cutter fashion after the schools in Dougco. Jeffco is independent; Jeffco was fooled in 2013 but won’t be fooled with the disastrous results that occur with the implementation of unproven philosophies crudely rammed home.

The truth is, we don’t know if the stories that raise the eyebrows of the general public distract from, or shine light upon, the real issues.

In our minds, this questioning does underscore two strategies that need to be in place more moving forward.

First, we need to tie the policy shenanigans more to headlines. We need to tell stories of the individual human cost of what’s happening. We need to see more significant actions that are visible and dramatic reminders of what is happening.

It is easy to think of policy disagreements as only having incremental impact, but we need to translate policy impacts into a steady stream of headlines that feature personal stories, or stories of mass disenchantment. The public forms its opinions primarily from mass media still, and the mass media covers the sensational stories. Fact-finders and changing pay scales do not make for sustained headlines. Personal stories of excellent teachers leaving Jeffco, student action, or mass teacher departures for more supportive environments, get the media’s attention.

Finally, as we were reminded just this week, it will take money to tell these stories. We are not affiliated with JCEA or any other organization, so we don’t know what their plans are for this fall’s critical elections. We do know that the board majority’s allies at the Independence Institute called for $300,000 in donations to fight the imagined “’Leftists’ iron grip” in Jeffco. Candidates this fall will have to stave off Independence Institute money in addition to huge money that will be coming in from other outside sources, but well-hidden, just as it did in 2013.

For Jeffco to keep fighting effectively, it will take generating more media attention through the sharing of real stories or clever activism, and for all parties to fund reasonable and competent candidates this fall so that those stories can be shared.


 

4.25.15 On building bright futures

Our district proudly displays a banner on its homepage advertising that Jefferson County Public Schools builds bright futures. Somehow, that’s hard to believe when one of the key architects, our school board member Julie Williams, is taking pieces out of our foundation all the time.

Here’s one foundational truth that applies to all of Jefferson County’s
students. It can be hard to be an adolescent. It’s a time filled with insecurities, rejection, fear, and often loneliness. It can be torture to be a gay adolescent. It’s a time filled with teasing, hateful words, threats, and additional fear.

It’s an atrocity to realize that a student in our district holding the hand of a same sex partner is still an act of bravery that might be punished through unthinkable acts of violence while Julie Williams can sit comfortably in her chair and say she didn’t take the time to read the hateful, gay bashing post she put on her Facebook page. Of the many people in Jefferson County who care passionately about the well-being of our students, Julie Williams does not appear to be one.

After all, our teachers are working tirelessly to make sure that students do read things and become thoughtful and contributing members in our diverse community. Julie Williams is far from a role model.