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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.