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Jeffco board member: we need more guidance on open records

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
School board member Julie Williams, left, answered questions Oct. 2 at a Jeffco school board meeting.

Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams believes some things should be kept private.

That includes some written correspondence with constituents who pull double duty as advisers and friends.

So, on Sept. 17 she emailed Loren Sheets, a Jefferson County mother and Tea Party activist who was interested in serving on a controversial curriculum review committee, “My email is under CORA so it is best to call or text me or talk through Donna Jack.”

Williams gave the same advice to at least two other individuals, according to email records. Jack is a confidant of Williams’ and has regularly addressed the school board during public comment.

“A lot of my friends and people I have been talking to, they’d like their emails kept confidential,” Williams told Chalkbeat after a recent school board meeting. “They have expressed that our communications are to be strictly confidential. That’s why I wanted them to know, if you email me, even if it’s a simple question, it’s open to CORA. I think they have a right to know that.”

Chalkbeat learned of Williams’ suggestion after obtaining dozens of emails she sent during the month of September through an open records request.

The problem with Williams’ advice is that text messages pertaining to district business sent or received by elected officials are subject to the state’s open records laws too.

But Williams didn’t know that.

That’s because she’s received no training on what’s in Colorado’s open records laws and she hasn’t independently sought legal advice on how to keep some of her records private.

But she said, “it’s something I’d like to pursue.”

Williams, along with board members Ken Witt and John Newkirk were elected in November. They ran on a platform of, among other things, expanding school choice, merit-based pay for teachers, and transparency. But since being sworn in, the three who make up the board majority have been under scrutiny by a vocal group of parents and teachers.

“I want there to be transparency, but I also sometimes need help with things,” Williams said. “Even President Obama has people help him with speech writing and messaging and standing up in front of crowds. Some of my friends, they’re my friends and they provide me feedback. And I don’t think everything we talk about should be subject to CORA.”

On Friday, Chalkbeat reported that board chairman Witt claimed he had no records of any correspondence he might have sent or received from a private email account. That’s despite Chalkbeat knowing of at least five instances he used that account.

Government agencies, including school districts, are supposed to have a policy on how to maintain and destroy public records, including those records that are only kept digitally, like email, said Steve Zansberg, a lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Jeffco Public Schools has no such explicit policy. A lawyer for the school system said she believes the district is compliant with all records laws.

Williams said board members need more training on the state’s open records laws and other district policies.

“We’re not given much information,” she said. “We’re not given any training. We’re learning as we go.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

planning ahead

New superintendent’s vision for Jeffco: It’s not just what happens in school that matters

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School in May. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In a vision document meant to guide Jeffco Public Schools for the next several years, Superintendent Jason Glass is underscoring the importance of boosting student learning by addressing issues that reach beyond the classroom.

Glass took the top job in the state’s second largest school district this summer. The new vision document, released Wednesday, has a strong focus on equity, improving students’ learning experiences and working with outside groups to help create “a Jeffco where no child suffers from hunger, preventable illness, lack of dental care or lack of mental health supports.”

Though the plan draws on previous district planning documents, it is more specific in parts and carries a strong emphasis on addressing out-of-school issues, a big emphasis of Glass’s since before he assumed the role.

“This was not intended as some jarring change,” Glass said in an interview. “But I think it provides greater clarity.”

The structure of the plan divides the work into learning, conditions for learning and readiness for learning. The first two sections focus on work happening inside schools, while the third section points to “decades of education research which confirms that the biggest indicators of student success are related to out-of-school factors and the student’s environment. ”

Some of the work under the readiness for learning section — such as expanding social and emotional support and parent and community engagement — is not new. But using schools as “community hubs,” and having a section on expanding early childhood education is new compared to the existing Jeffco Vision 2020 authored by former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The two vision documents share similarities.

Both suggest the use of so-called “multiple pathways” to offer students a variety of ways to learn and reach graduation. But Glass gets more specific, mentioning apprenticeships, internships and partnerships with community colleges to increase early college credit options.

Both documents also mention the need to incorporate technology for student learning and the need to hire and retain high quality educators. Glass goes further by suggesting the district must commit to paying teachers and staff “a fair, livable and reasonable wage.”

Glass’s vision also notes that the district must find a balance between giving schools flexibility and having district-wide direction. Several metro-area districts have been moving for years to give school leaders more autonomy to make decisions, especially through innovation status.

In an interview Tuesday, Glass said that flexibility in Jeffco schools already exists, and that he would allow principals to keep flexibility in hiring and budgeting. But, he said he’ll have to evaluate whether more or less flexibility is better, saying, “both or neither” are possible.

But in keeping with a new value he’s adding in the document for having an entrepreneurial spirit he adds that innovative thinking toward the same district goals, will be encouraged.

“So long as there is a north star we’re all looking toward,” Glass said.

The former vision document included a strategic plan that laid out a rubric with goals, such as having all students completing algebra by the end of ninth grade by 2017. Other metrics were not as detailed, only pointing to certain reports, like attendance or discipline reports, to look for progress.

The Jeffco district will contract with a consultant, Deliver-Ed, that will evaluate the district’s ability to execute the new vision plan.

The group is then expected to provide some recommendations and help the district create a more detailed strategic plan with clear performance metrics and ideas for how the budget will affect the district’s work. Glass said he expects the detailed action plan to be completed by March or April.

Asked whether the plan is also meant to lay out the need for more local funding through a future ballot measure, Glass said that work is separate. He said the work laid out in the vision plan will happen regardless of more or less funding.

“We’re going to take whatever resources we have, at whatever level, and we’re going to execute what’s in this plan,” Glass said.

Glass has toured the district holding public meetings to gather input for the document. Now that it is created, the components of the vision plan must still be vetted by the community, Glass said.

It will start with Glass hosting a Facebook live event at 11 a.m. to discuss the vision document.