in plain sight

Jeffco teacher contract talks off to a “good start”

GOLDEN — The Jefferson County school district and teachers union began contract negotiations in earnest Monday and both sides left the first meeting feeling optimistic.

“It’s a good start,” Stephanie Rossi, a Wheat Ridge High School history teacher and lead negotiator for the Jefferson County Education Association, said at the end of the four hour meeting.

Officials from Jeffco Public Schools and the union hope to have a new contract solidified by the end of May. But the district’s board room is reserved for negotiations almost every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday until the contract expires on July 31.

Some teachers and community members are worried Jeffco will become the largest school district in the state without a teachers union. That’s because they believe the aim of the conservative board majority, elected in 2013, is to weaken the teachers association just as the Douglas County school board did to its union in 2012.

Jeffco school board president Ken Witt has deflected those accusations and called for a fresh start with negotiations earlier this year. Last year, the union declared an impasse and the school board majority ultimately developed its own pay compensation system based on performance, not years in the classroom.

And if the district negotiating team has its way, that’s exactly what the end result will be: a near-complete rewrite of the teacher contract that is more of a blueprint to managing human resources and priorities than a proscriptive set of steps to cope with conflict.

“While it might not look like a traditional [interest-based bargaining] process, we are very committed to the collaborative aspects of the IBB process,” said Jim Branum, the district’s lead negotiator, during his opening remarks. “By working around the table, we’re going to come out with a much better agreement.”

While it appeared everyone left the bargaining table in high spirits after several laugh-out-loud moments, the meeting did not get off to a smooth start.

Early on, the independent moderator Jon Numair pointed out that the district is asking to invert the model of collective bargaining.

Normally, when a contract is renegotiated, both the employees’ association and district assume if particular language or issues are not discussed, those sections of the contract remain intact, Numair said. But the district is asking that only language that is discussed and approved by both sides stays.  Everything else in the contract could be dumped.

Members of the union said multiple times that they understood the district’s position and were starting from a similar point. But union members stressed they believed most of the language needed only to be tweaked, not eliminated or completely rewritten.

Despite everyone at the table seeming to be in agreement on this “starting point,” the moderator appeared unconvinced. He repeatedly asked, “are we sure?” “Do we have agreement” on a starting place?

Finally, Lisa Elliott, the union’s executive director, suggested the group identify common interests based on both sides’ opening pitch. Those common interests, she said, could become the focus of the first working groups to develop contract language.

The rest of the meeting was spent working through some of those topics including effective teachers, educating the whole child, and school-level autonomy.

One mild scuffle that could foreshadow future conflict was a discussion between Elliott and Amy Weber, Jeffco’s human resource director, about how principals should work collaboratively with teachers.

“School-based autonomy sounds great until you’re in a building where it’s the principal’s way or the highway,” Elliott said urging for oversight.

This is the second year contract negotiations between the Jeffco school district and its union are open to the public. There were about six audience members as the meeting started, a far cry from the hundreds who usually pack school board meetings. The numbers fluctuated throughout the evening. At most there were a dozen. Toward the end of the four-hour session, only four teachers remained in the audience.

This marks the first year all school districts must negotiate with their respective teachers unions in public. Colorado voters in 2014 approved Proposition 104 which made contract talks public meetings.

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.