HIGHLANDS RANCH – With their positions now spelled out on vouchers, Douglas County school board candidates on Thursday began debating a pay-for-performance plan for teachers that voters will be asked to fund on Nov. 1.

The focus, however, wasn’t on the pros and cons of the plan that would be paid through a $20 million tax increase. Instead, it centered around the fact that several candidates say the details are too sketchy for them – and the community – to know what they’re being asked to support.

Alice Ramsey, who moderated the forum at Cresthill Middle School for the League of Women Voters of Arapahoe County and the American Association of University Women, asked each candidate how the plan would work for classroom teachers and for those involved in “specials” or elective classes, such as art and technology.

“It’s very hard to answer your question because the details are not there,” said candidate Susan Meek. “Basically, my understanding is there’s multiple metrics that will be factored into a teacher or employee’s performance evaluation but the system to put that in place is not built yet.”

Candidate Gail Frances said the six-page description of the plan on the district’s website “looks like a marketing piece.”

Candidate Gail Frances

“It’s not clear, and much of it is in the process of being developed,” she said.

That description says the plan would begin with “ranking the perceived value” of teaching positions and placing teachers in a “market range” based on factors such as whether a teacher has multiple certifications or is willing to work in a challenging school. It indicates those criteria are still being decided.

All new teachers would be placed in the market range while current teachers could opt into the new system. Once in, the teachers also could earn additional pay based on meeting goals in three areas – evaluations, student assessments and “world-class education targets” such as parent and student satisfaction. Teachers would need to meet at least 85 percent of their goals to earn more money.

Eventually, teachers could earn up to $100,000 per year under the new plan.

Candidate Kevin Larsen said he likes the fact that the plan isn’t based on a bell curve – that is, all teachers who reach the goals earn the rewards rather than limiting the extra money to a certain percentage.

Larsen said he recently visited an elementary school where teachers seemed to like the idea, though he acknowledged they wanted more specifics.

Candidate Kevin Larsen

“The devil’s in the details but I do believe the concept of having this kind of compensation does ultimately bring a more highly qualified teaching staff,” he said.

Not good enough, said Frances, who is Larsen’s opponent for the board seat representing north and central areas of the county.

“If we’re going to implement a pay-for-performance model that we’re asking the community to vote on and to increase their taxes, the devil shouldn’t be in the details,” Frances said. “They should be transparent and the community should know what the details look like.”

Douglas County school board members voted 5-2 on Aug. 30 to ask voters for the $20 million increase in operating funds, with $10 million going to the pay-for-performance plan, and a $200 million bond issue.

Denver voters in 2005 approved a $25 million tax increase to support ProComp, that district’s performance-pay plan for teachers, after a campaign that included a public vote in support of the plan by the teachers’ union and the help of a popular mayor, now Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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Several Douglas County candidates – Meek, Frances and Susan McMahon – on Thursday said they’re concerned that Dougco officials aren’t doing enough to inform voters about the two ballot measures, questions 3A and 3B.

They also said the controversy over the district’s voucher pilot, which was halted by a Denver judge and is in appeals, has split the community and may make voters reluctant to support tax increases. District leaders may have similar fears – they’ve placed a notice on the district website saying no new tax dollars would go to the voucher program.

“We need the resources, yes,” McMahon said of the tax measures. “I am concerned that due to the existing division in our community, the voting community might not support the current proposal. I wish that there was more citizen involvement in the community for 3A and 3B, from the grassroots to the top.”

Only four of the seven school board candidates – Frances, Larson, McMahon and Meek – attended Thursday’s debate. Candidate Kevin Reilly and incumbent Craig Richardson had prior business commitments and sent surrogates to read opening statements. Incumbent Justin Williams did not attend.

The result was that three of those responding to questions tended to be more critical of the district and actions taken by current board members while Larsen, who has been endorsed by the Republican Party along with the two incumbents, was less so.

Dougco school board president John Carson

But the criticism appeared to irk current school board president John Carson, who attended as Richardson’s stand-in. When he rose to give a closing statement, Carson took aim at the candidates, saying that “a number of these folks are pretty satisfied with the status quo” and that the state’s “idiotic” education funding formula shortchanges Dougco.

“And yet, at the same time, when the school district is putting before the voters of Douglas County a bond and mill levy that over the next decade will produce $500 million for our schools, a number of these folks can’t even muster the leadership to get behind that,” he said.

That prompted Ramsey, the moderator, to ask Carson to “calm down your attacks.” Carson rolled on.

“What we hear is a lot of complaints about how we don’t have enough money,” he said, “and yet when a proposal to change the pay system of our teachers is put out before the public, folks can’t seem to muster the courage to get behind that. So I find that puzzling.”

Douglas County school board candidates and key positions

District A, Northwest

    Susan Meek, 42, of Highlands Ranch, is an education strategist at Breakaway Ltd. and former district communications director.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quote on 3A & 3B – “The ballots come out in less than two weeks and I’ve heard many, many community members express concern that they haven’t heard anything at all.”
  • Campaign website
    Kevin Reilly, 53, of Highlands Ranch, is a neuropsychologist in private practice who also consults at a local hospital.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Reilly did not attend Thursday’s school board forum.
  • Campaign website
    Craig Richardson, 50, of Highlands Ranch, was appointed to fill a mid-term vacancy and is seeking a full four-year term. He is general counsel for the El Paso Pipeline Group.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Richardson did not attend Thursday’s school board forum.
  • Campaign website

District C, North and Central

    Gail Frances, 65, of Highlands Ranch, has taken a hiatus from the financial services industry to run for the board.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quote on pay-for-performance – “Any pay-for-performance should be the result of teachers and administrators working together to lay out the guidelines, the rewards and the consequences.”
  • Campaign website
    Kevin Larsen, 48, of Highlands Ranch, is an actuary and assistant vice president at Hannover Life Reassurance Co. of America.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quote on pay-for-performance – “It gives us a way to have the best teachers teaching our children.”
  • Campaign website

District F, Northeast

    Susan McMahon, 44, of Parker, is a former small business owner and entrepreneur.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quote on pay-for-performance – “I support having a pay-for-performance plan in place as long as all of those affected are involved in the program planning and implementation.”
  • Campaign website
    Justin Williams, 38, of Parker, is an investment adviser. First elected to the board in 2007, he is seeking a second term.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Williams did not attend Thursday’s school board forum.
  • Campaign website