Who Is In Charge

Jeffco goes to voters for more money

The Jefferson County school board voted 4-1 Thursday evening to ask district residents for a $39 million revenue increase and a $99 million bond issue to bolster the district’s finances.

Jeffco board meeting
Witnesses testified to the Jeffco school board with this giant timer looming over them.

The board also gave final 4-1 approval to a 2012-13 district budget that cuts spending by about $20 million, the latest in several years of budget cuts.

The two issues are intertwined, because district officials predict that Jeffco could face $43.5 million in reductions in 2013-13 – deeply cutting programs and staff – if voters don’t approve the spending increase.

The meeting ran for more than four hours and was marked by repeated disagreements between conservative member Laura Boggs and her four colleagues, a familiar board dynamic.

Things were exacerbated by the fact that Boggs wasn’t in the boardroom at district headquarters in Golden – she participated by speakerphone. Since she had no visual contact with the rest of the board, she and the others kept verbally tripping over each other when Boggs tried to speak. She was the only no vote on the tax proposal, the budget and approval of the district’s contract with the Jefferson County Education Association.

At one point Boggs said she wished she were in the room, and board President Lesley Dahlkemper replied, “We’d love to have you here at the board meeting.”

The meeting also was extended by a lengthy public testimony session, primarily focused on the proposed bond issue and tax override. Most of the speakers urged the board to support the plan, with members of the large audience waving their hands in the air in shows of support after speakers finished. (Applause is frowned upon, so hand waving is the acceptable alternative.)

Speakers for two opposing citizen groups summarized some of the arguments over the tax election.

Byron Gale of Citizens for Jeffco Schools said the district urgently needs the extra revenue. “We’re eagerly awaiting the green light from the board so we can get on with the campaign,” he said. “With the right grassroots campaign I like our chances.”

But Sheila Atwell of Jeffco Students First questioned whether more spending would help flat achievement and graduation levels. “Do dollars mean better schools? I just don’t see that being the case.”

The tax increase would be used to maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, cover utility costs and restore some cuts, according to district officials. The bond issue would be used for building upgrades.

The net effect of the proposal would be a $14.68 property tax increase for each $100,000 of a home’s value.

District voters last passed a tax increase and bond issue in 2004.

Next year’s district general fund budget will be about $557 million. (The total budget, including all funds, will be about $930 million.) The $20 million shortfall is being made up by continuation of a 3 percent compensation cut for employees, use of $5 million in reserves and $7 million in administrative reductions, among other measures. The budget assumes two furlough days and a four-day reduction in the work year.

Some board members used the discussion to vent about the financial pressures Jeffco faces. “The state finance act needs some revision,” said member Paula Noonan. “The legislature seems to think this is something fantastic,” she added, referring to the fact the state school spending is being held flat this year, rather than being cut again. “We are in a hole, and we are not getting out of the hole.”

Noting projected future cuts for the district, Dahlkemper said, “We want to retain the best and the brightest in Jefferson County. … I worry about how much longer we can hold on to those employees.”

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.