do you hear the people sing?

After week of protests, an uncertain path forward for Jeffco schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Leslie Aranjo a Jeffco parent and teacher prepares a protest sign Friday morning. A small group of teachers and parents met at the corner of Kipling Street and Bowles Avenue to raise awareness of their concerns about the school district's board majority.

LITTLETON — After a week-long student-organized protest against a proposed curriculum review panel that some fear could lead to censorship, it appears both sides of a fractured Jefferson County Public Schools community are digging in their heels.

In interviews and statements to the media, members of the school district’s majority appear resolute in their pursuit of a commission to study an advanced history course’s curriculum and other texts as they see necessary to ensure coursework is balanced.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers critical of the board are preparing to step up their ground game by establishing a countywide network in order to quickly mobilize parents if they believe the board steps out of line.

Given the battle lines drawn, it’s becoming more uncertain how the two sides of the fractured community can find their way back to one another.

“There’s just so much,” said Jeffco Public Schools parent and teacher Allison Olis, referring to the growing list of controversies that have fractured the school system.

Olis was one of about two dozen parents and teachers who gathered early Friday morning to wave protest signs at a busy intersection in the suburban Denver commuinty. Another, larger protest is scheduled for next week.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco Interrupted 

Tina Gurdikian, a vocal parent activist who also joined the morning gathering, said the rash of student protests — and rumors of more — should be enough to get the board majority to listen to the community.

“We’re doing our part,” she said. “Now they need to do theirs: listen.”

The board will have that chance at its Oct. 2 meeting, the first since the controversy around the proposed review committee made national headlines. Students who participated throughout the week’s protest pledged to take their concerns to Golden, where the board meets.

An agenda published for the meeting late Friday afternoon did not include the proposal. However, the board can add a discussion item to the agenda up to 24 hours before they meet.

The stakes for the school district might even be higher next week, according to 9News. The station reported that students are considering a districtwide walkout on Oct. 1, the state’s official “count day” that establishes funding for school districts. If students skip school en masse Wednesday, that would cause a logistical nightmare for Jeffco Public Schools, the second largest school system in the state.

In order to secure funding for students not present on Oct. 1, schools must provide additional evidence to the state to prove just how many students are enrolled in its schools.

Students who helped organize walkouts at Chatfield, Lakewood and Pomona high schools said they haven’t heard of such plans yet. But the Chatfield principal took to social media to plead with her students not to miss class.

“If we have an inaccurate October count, we will end up being shorted on money that supports all facets of the school and school district, including possible class offerings and teacher staffing and salaries, two of the issues that many students have said they are fighting for,” Principal Wendy Rubin wrote on the school’s Facebook page. 

Board chairman Ken Witt said in a statement to Chalkbeat that he hopes the students who took to the street realize that curriculum review is just part of the job for a school board.

“To ensure that the board fulfills that charge, it has been proposed that the board establish a curriculum review committee to provide input from parents and the community, in addition to many other inputs, including the school district,” Witt said. “My goal is to ensure we have balanced and thorough curriculum.”

In interviews with other media outlets, Witt has laid blame on the student walkouts at the feet of the county’s teachers union.

I have had students tell me so, directly,” Witt told Chalkbeat when asked for evidence to support his claim the union fostered the student protests. 

But dozens of students who spoke with Chalkbeat throughout the week of protests expressed frustration that their teachers in fact aren’t talking about the growing tension.

The Jefferson County Education Association has strongly pushed back against Witt’s claim it had anything to do with the protests or an apparent “sick-out” that forced Jeffco officials to close two high schools last week.

“It’s defamation of character, as far as I’m concerned,” Gurdikian said. “Give our kids some credit.”

Gurdikian said she and other parents critical of the board majority are working toward establishing a network of parents throughout the county — at least one family from every school.

“Seventy percent of Jeffco isn’t connected to the school district,” Gurdikian said, referring to those who either don’t work for or send their children to the system’s schools. “We have to reach them. This majority was elected by the people who didn’t vote last year.”

In the off-year election, about 130,000 people, or 31 percent, voted in the last year’s school board race. Williams won by the widest margin, with 61 percent of the vote. Witt earned 58 percent of the vote and Newkirk beat his opponent with 54 percent.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of reform-minded Jeffco Students First and general supporter of the board majority, pointed out those who did vote are getting what they asked for.

“We ran on giving every effective teacher a raise,” she said. “And that’s what the board majority is doing.”

Nearly 100 percent of Jeffco teachers are expected to see a raise this year after the board approved a new teacher compensation model earlier this month. The proposal came at the same meeting that the board’s majority rejected recommendations from a third party on how to settle ongoing negotiations with the teachers union.

While some teachers are concerned about linking raises to evaluations, which the third party found to be unreliable, a louder concern was the lack of collaboration between the board and the Jefferson County Education Association.

And Atwell acknowledged the criticism that chairman Witt’s sometimes-bullish behavior at meetings doesn’t provide a welcoming atmosphere.

I want [the board majority] to succeed,” Atwell said. “So, it’s frustrating. I do wish Ken had a more conciliatory style. That would be nice.”

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.