2015 Session Review

Testing bill the one notable achievement in education policy

The sense of relief was palpable in the Capitol last Wednesday after it became clear that lawmakers had come together behind a compromise bill to reduce the amount of statewide standardized testing.

Sen. Rollie Heath called it “the absolute elation of getting the testing bill done.” The Boulder Democrat participated in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

Testing was education issue No. 1 for the legislature from the first day to the last, but things didn’t start to come together until the last week of the session.

School safety and K-12 finance were the year’s other big issues. Beyond those, things dropped off pretty quickly, even though the sheer volume of education bills was at record levels.

Despite split party control of the General Assembly, partisanship wasn’t a deciding factor for key education measures. Both houses had their own main testing bills, each backed by different coalitions of Democrats and Republicans.

In the end it was an unsatisfying session for lawmakers and activist groups that wanted big changes in the state’s system of academic standards, tests, school and district ratings, and educator evaluations. But the way things turned out was a relief for interest groups that have helped build the current system over the last seven years.

Some 119 education-related bills were introduced this year, a big increase from 80-90 of recent sessions (See this year’s full list in the 2015 Education Bill Tracker.).

This year’s mortality rate also was high; 74 of those education bills were killed, or 62 percent. In recent sessions the percentage of bills “postponed indefinitely” ran in the 30-40 percent range.

The high bill count can be attributed partly to lots of “statement” bills, both from freshmen fulfilling campaign promises and from veteran lawmakers. And an unusually high number of higher education bills were introduced. Many of those were unsuccessful Democratic proposal aimed at the rising costs of college.

Much debate, last-minute action on testing

Most legislators felt they had to do something this session about testing. The problem was it took them a long time to figure out what that “something” was.

Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker / File photo
Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker / File photo

Discussions were “back and forth and back and forth,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and a key figure in the ultimate compromise.

The 2015 legislature was teed up to face the issue by the 2014 legislature, which created a study committee to review the state testing system and make recommendations for changes. That panel, the Standards and Assessments Task Force, generally recommended that state tests be reduced to the so-called federal minimums, but it couldn’t reach agreement on what to do about 9th grade and social studies testing.

Parent groups, usually referred to at the Capitol as “The Moms,” had been energized by expansion of testing into the 11th and 12th grades. They pushed for big rollbacks in exams, protection of parent opt-out rights and greater privacy protections for student data. Allied groups agitated to pull Colorado out the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing network. The Colorado Education Association also pushed for less testing.

On the other side, education reform groups rallied to warn against radical testing changes that they felt could compromise the quality of student and school achievement data and thereby threaten past education reforms intended to improve educational equity for low-income and minority students.

The 11 testing-related bills proposed a range of options from restrained tinkering to wholesale uprooting of the Common Core and PARCC and wide-open freedom for districts to choose their own tests.

Little progress was made as the session clock ticked toward adjournment.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, noted the debate “was polarized most of the time.” House Speaker Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said, “This came close to falling apart almost every day of the session.”

Finally, with less than two weeks to go, legislative leaders took the issue in hand and convened a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers to hammer out the compromise.

Heath acknowledged that a “nudge” was needed “to make sure something happened.”

In the end, said Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, “It really was this organic confluence.”

Key elements of the compromise (HB1323) significantly reduce high school testing, streamline school readiness and early literacy assessments, guarantee parent opt-out rights, give districts and teachers a bit of breathing room on use of assessment data for accreditation and evaluation, and offer some modest steps toward district testing flexibility. Gov. John Hickenlooper said he would sign the bill.

A stand-alone bill on opting out of tests died, as did a measure on student data privacy. Both are issues closely related to assessment reform.

Get the details on the testing measure here.

K-12 funding will rise, but little dent made in negative factor

The session opened with hopes of further shrinking the state’s K-12 shortfall this session, building on decisions made by the legislature in 2014, when finance was the top education issue.

Hickenlooper proposed a $200 million increase in K-12 support on top of automatic increases triggered by inflation and enrollment growth. On top of the governor’s plan, the state’s superintendents proposed adding $70 million, with some of that money earmarked for at-risk students.

Additional proposals to divert various surplus funds to K-12 and to increase support for full-day kindergarten and at-risk preschool capacity all quickly died.

The final version of next year’s school finance bill (SB267) will increase K-12 funding by $306 million of state and local funds to about $6.23 billion. Most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

Instead of Hickenlooper’s $200 million, the key discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that will be applied to the funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That shortfall currently is about $880 million. Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026. Another $5 million was added and will be divvied up among school districts based on at-risk student enrollment. And a separate bill gives $10 million in per-pupil aid to small rural districts.

Funding “one place we didn’t get as far as we would have liked,” Hickenlooper said the day after the session adjourned.

See how your district will fare in this Department of Education spreadsheet.

The finance bill also includes a legislative “promise” that if district tax revenues rise more than currently forecast, the 2016 legislature will consider adding that amount to 2015-16 school funding. The usual practice when local revenue increases rise is to reduce the state contribution by the same amount.

Plans for a bigger cut in the negative factor were blighted by the state’s paradoxical financial situation. A healthy economy is driving higher state tax collections and other revenues. But that income has pushed the state above the annual spending limit imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which is enshrined in the state constitution. That surplus triggers refunds to taxpayers. And some of the money in the 2015-16 state budget was earmarked for transportation and building construction by a prior state law.

Lawmakers could have asked voters for permission to keep the excess revenue rather than refund it, but there was no interest in doing that.

Late in the session some Democratic senators pushed hard to boost school spending by taking money from the dedicated account called the State Education Fund. The problem is that using money from the education fund for basic school support puts additional obligations on the main General Fund in future years. So that effort was rebuffed in the face of warnings that spending from the education fund would consume all the new money available to the general fund in 2016-17.

As a nod to anxieties about school funding, a bipartisan group of House members proposed a two-year legislative study of K-12 finance (HB1334), with the study panel empowered to recommend proposed laws and constitutional changes to the 2016 and 2015 sessions. That bill sailed out of the House but died for murky reasons in a Senate committee, and the House ultimately chose not to press the issue.

School funding may be a tougher issue in 2016. Rising state collections from both taxes and fees have pushed state revenues past constitutional spending limits, triggering taxpayer refunds. A last-minute bill proposed to take some Medicaid-related fees out of that calculation, freeing up tax revenues for education and transportation. That failed in the Senate, meaning the 2016 legislative will have little or no flexibility in raising K-12 funding.

Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder
Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder

“We are facing a budget crisis,” Hullinghorst said. “As we reach more of a crisis on the budget there may be more interest in this,” referring to the proposed change in Medicaid fees.

Focus turned to school security

School safety emerge as a somewhat unexpected education issue this session, with most of the attention on a bill that creates limited liability for schools districts in cases of school violence (SB213). In the past districts have had immunity from such lawsuits.

The bill was named the “Claire Davis Act” in honor of the Arapahoe High School student killed in a December 2013 shooting. The bill had the support of top bipartisan leadership in both houses and was backed by skillful lobbying.

To the relief of districts, the bill gained some guardrails along the way. The main elements of the measure allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.

A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability.

The bill also makes it easier for victims’ families to gain information about violent incidents before cases go to trial.

Two other bills passed by lawmakers have their roots in the Davis tragedy.

One measure (SB214) establishes a legislative study committee on school violence and youth mental health. A second bill (HB1273) is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools.

Other education issues

Higher education – Two-dozen bills related to higher education were introduced this session, part of the reason for the inflation in the total number of education-related bills. Most were of little consequence and included various changes in resident tuition eligibility, measures related to campus sexual assault, all those Democratic bills on tuition and student loan costs and various technical measures. Higher education officials were concerned about possible legislative tinkering with the performance funding system created by the 2014 legislature, but the changes made were minor.

Workforce development – This issue was an under-the-radar bipartisan favorite this session. Several bills intended to improve the quality of worker skills for new jobs were introduced. Among those related to education measures to expand the number of high schools that offer early colleges programs (HB1270), create new career pathways programs for students (HB1274), and add career and technical courses to programs eligible for concurrent enrollment (HB1275).

Ideological bills – These didn’t fare well in a split-control legislature. Take for example the Republican-backed parents’ bill of rights (SB77) and the Democratic bill to give the state veto power over schools’ use of American Indian mascots and symbols (HB1165). The first was killed in the Democratic House and the second in the GOP Senate.

Big ideas, little success – Proposals to pay extra stipends to high-performing teachers who work in low-performing schools, to create a system of electronic vouchers, and to provide colleges scholarships to the top graduates of every Colorado high school all dropped by the wayside. But a bill that would allow the state to create “pay for success” contracts to allow private funding for social services like early childhood programs did pass.

Other ideas that didn’t make it – Split partisan control and lack of money were factors in the high mortality rate for some education bills. Among other proposals that died were:

  • Expansion of full-day kindergarten and preschool for at-risk students
  • Changes in regulation of multi-district online schools
  • Increased salaries for community college faculty
  • Expansion of the state Charter School Institute’s ability to authorize schools in struggling districts
  • A grant program for districts to expand use of student learning objectives as a way to measure student growth as teacher performance
  • Expansion of free meal programs in schools
  • State sale of bonds to shore up pension funds for teachers and for state employees

End of an era

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg smiles as he checks out the new lights on the football field at the Montbello campus earlier this month.

Tom Boasberg paused on his way out of the elementary school and held his phone to his mouth. The October sky was growing darker, and the Denver superintendent had just half an hour to get across the city in rush-hour traffic.

“Montbello High School,” he said in a low tone, enunciating each word so his phone would understand his destination.

GPS will still get you there, but the high school doesn’t technically exist anymore. In late 2010, nearly two years into Boasberg’s tenure, he advocated for closing Montbello High and replacing it with three smaller schools. The oft-cited statistic at the time was that just six of every 100 Montbello freshmen graduated ready for college. Boasberg — and a majority of the school board — thought the district could do better.

Now, in the waning days of his superintendency, Boasberg was headed back to Montbello for a celebration. The small schools that share the campus had just reopened their library after months of renovations and years of not having a full-time librarian. Plus, the football field was set to switch on its first-ever stadium lights — a big deal in a neighborhood with a proud history of excelling at high school sports and the packed trophy cases to prove it.

The upgrades were the result of relentless advocacy at public meetings by coaches, parents, and other residents. The scenes resembled countless others that played out over Boasberg’s near-decade at the helm of Colorado’s largest school district, which he led through a steady stream of big and sometimes unpopular changes to try to improve its schools.

His legacy is deeply entwined with those changes. Supporters hail him as the engine behind an urban success story with an impressive track record of turning around struggling schools. State test scores rose steadily under his watch. The high school graduation rate increased by 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2017. And district enrollment, once anemic, surged by more than 14,000 students, which some see as proof of parents’ confidence.

“There’s been a continuity over a period of time that provided stability, capable leadership, and direction,” said Bill Kurtz, founder of DSST, Denver’s largest homegrown charter school network. “That’s not the typical trajectory of a lot of large, urban public school districts.”

But critics point to stubborn problems that haven’t gone away. Schools, on the whole, remain segregated by race and family income in a district where a majority of the nearly 93,000 students are black and Latino and come from poor families. Test score gaps between more and less privileged students haven’t closed. And parents and residents of the neighborhoods most affected by controversial reforms continue to feel the district ignores their concerns.

Most everyone would lay the district’s failures and successes at Boasberg’s feet. However, even his harshest detractors agree that if nothing else, he was driven.

“He wasn’t a superintendent that just put out fires,” said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver teachers union, which butted heads with Boasberg on a multitude of issues over the years. “He had a clear vision of where he wanted the district to go.”

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Boasberg answers questions from kindergarteners in 2009 soon after being appointed superintendent.

That’s perhaps surprising given that Boasberg, whose last day is Friday, never intended to be superintendent. He came to work for Denver Public Schools from a private-sector telecommunications company in 2007, recruited by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet.

The two are childhood friends. Boasberg, 54, grew up in Washington, D.C., in the ’60s and ’70s. Living in what he described as a newly integrated neighborhood and attending a newly integrated school — which was private, not public — he said he learned the importance of “not misjudging or undervaluing people because of who they are or the color of their skin, but ensuring people get the respect and opportunities they deserve.”

As a child, he dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer. But though he earned a law degree, he did not make his career in the courtroom. He worked for a time in Hong Kong, including a stint as a junior high school English teacher. He also served a higher-profile stint as the chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

When Bennet asked him to join Denver Public Schools, Boasberg said he was drawn to it for the same reasons he’d once wanted to fight for people’s civil rights in court.

“As I got older, I recognized that, obviously, the law plays an incredibly important role” in driving equity, he said, “but I think our schools play an even more important role.”

At the time, Denver was the lowest-performing large school district in Colorado. It was also a few years into a big shift. Bennet was the first leader in years who hadn’t come from an education background, and he was shaking things up. He had a strategic plan full of lofty goals and some controversial ways to achieve them, including closing struggling schools. Student test scores, while still far below the state average, were beginning to show growth.

Boasberg was hired as the chief operating officer and tasked with overseeing the behind-the-scenes departments, such as food services and transportation, that make schools run. Gifted with numbers and a knack for efficiency, he earned high praise in that job, including from those who would come to dislike his policies as superintendent.

When Bennet was tapped in early January 2009 to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, the school board scrambled to find someone who would continue what Bennet had started. Board members quickly settled on Boasberg, who was voted in on Jan. 22.

From the start, Boasberg made plain his ambition.

“The opportunity for us, and the challenge, is not to rechart our direction or search for our destination,” he said after the vote, which his parents flew in from D.C. to watch alongside his wife and three children, “but to accelerate our reforms and do the work that will enable us to reach our goal of becoming the best urban district in the nation.”

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Boasberg high-fives Damian Lopez, 4, as he arrives in August for the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy, a district school that serves students in preschool and kindergarten. The high-five was Boasberg’s signature greeting.

Both supporters and critics view Bennet and Boasberg as something of a package deal. When asked to reflect on Boasberg’s tenure, most people start with Bennet. But while the two remain closely aligned on policy, their personalities are vastly different.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, who is thought to be on the short list to succeed Boasberg, provided an evocative example.

“One of my strongest memories of Michael Bennet is if you were in an elevator with him, he talked to everybody,” she said. “Tom is not nearly as extroverted, but he’s very approachable.”

Tall and fit, with rimless glasses and short hair that has grown more gray over the years, Boasberg often dressed for the job in khakis and polo shirts. When he showed up at a middle school in a suit and tie last week, people remarked on his attire.

He’s more comfortable with data and details than with crowds, though longtime observers note he’s gotten better over the years at addressing packed auditoriums and schmoozy fundraising galas. He’s a naturally soft speaker, a patient listener, and a deep thinker. His default expression is serious, but he’s also quick to crack a joke (often of the dad variety).

“He’s articulate and charming,” said Paul Hill, founder of a Seattle-based think tank called the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who has known Boasberg for years and supports his reforms, “but he’s not somebody that gets the troops riled up.”

He is somebody who gets things done. For his entire tenure, he had the backing of a majority of the district’s seven-member school board, and Denver voters twice approved tax increases to funnel more money into the schools. The initiatives he successfully pushed for include:

Many of those elements make up what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” for managing schools, and Denver’s deft execution of the model has made it a darling among charter school advocates. It has also made the district a cautionary tale to traditionalists and teachers unions who think independently run charter schools are “privatizing” public education.

For his part, Boasberg doesn’t want the portfolio strategy to be the thing that defines his legacy.

He points instead to much lower profile, more methodical work as his biggest achievement: a collection of district programs meant to raise the quality of its teachers and principals, which research shows is one of the most important factors in student success.

“Above all, it’s been around talent,” Boasberg said of the district’s strategy, and “just a real deep belief that this work is extraordinarily hard and challenging. The level of skill we need from our teachers, our school leaders, our district-level folks is very, very high.”

The initiatives include a cadre of residency programs, some of which give student teachers hands-on experience in the classroom and another that allows aspiring principals to spend a year working under veteran school leaders who act as mentors. Three-quarters of the new principals hired this year came up through one of the district’s programs.

One of the initiatives Boasberg is proudest of has standout teachers spend half of their time teaching students and the other half coaching other teachers. The arrangement is meant to help the other teachers improve and keep the district’s strongest teachers in the classroom.

Justin Jeannot, a teacher coach at Abraham Lincoln High School, said the opportunity to become a leader without having to give up teaching has kept him in Denver Public Schools.

“I have found purpose and a home in teaching students,” said Jeannot, who became a teacher after a career in engineering, “but it has been much nicer to be in a district that really is trying to be on the cutting edge of harnessing the leadership power of their teachers.”

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez/Chalkbeat
Boasberg receives a pin to mark his fifth year on the job. His lanyard grew more crowded by the end of his tenure.

Counted among those who think Boasberg will leave the district in better shape than he found it are school principals who took advantage of the flexibilities he afforded them, the founders of Denver’s biggest charter school networks, and advocates who believe so wholeheartedly in the portfolio strategy, they wish Boasberg would have been even more aggressive.

They see his legacy as one of setting aside ideological squabbles about which types of schools — charter or traditional — are best, and instead focusing on what would serve students.

“It’s always been about quality for him, not about ideology,” said Chris Gibbons, the founder of STRIVE Prep, which began with a single charter school in Denver and now has 11.

Mike Vaughn, who served as Boasberg’s chief communications officer for five years, said although his former boss had good political instincts and was able to anticipate who might be mad about a particular decision, “his calculus was always a family calculus: ‘How can we better serve families and give our families better schools?’”

Many say Boasberg has done that. A decade ago, a quarter of the city’s school-age children didn’t attend Denver Public Schools. Their parents opted instead for private or suburban schools they thought were better. That’s no longer the case.

“What’s happened in this era over the last 10 or 13 years is there’s an expectation that if you live in Denver, you should be able to send your kid to a good school,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Colorado, an advocacy group that supported many of Boasberg’s initiatives.

Others said Boasberg will be remembered for decentralizing district decision-making and pushing his school principals to think like entrepreneurs.

“One of his big mottos was, ‘Don’t wait, lead,” said Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a district-run elementary school that had a history of low test scores. Reynolds competed for the chance to restart it with a new program. “To know that from the top down, that’s the message — that spoke to me.”

Still others pointed to Boasberg’s commitment to equity, which included giving schools extra money to educate students with higher needs, such as those living in poverty, and doling out millions of additional dollars each year to the most academically struggling schools.

Equity is one of the six shared core values that district employees chose in 2012. Boasberg remembers the day that a thousand people brainstormed them in a huge banquet hall as one of the most fun of his tenure.

The core values have given way to a tradition where employees shout out their colleagues for demonstrating one of the values, which earns that person a small pin to fasten to their work-badge lanyard. Boasberg’s lanyard is full of them.

“Everyone who comes to work in the Denver Public Schools is extraordinarily mission- and values-oriented. That’s why we’re here,” Boasberg said, reflecting on what prompted the tradition. “What we sought to do is to say, ‘What an unbelievable strength that we have. How do we bring that together? How do we celebrate that?’”

That feeling is one of the things Boasberg said he’ll miss the most about working for the district. He does not have immediate plans for what he’ll do next beyond spending more time with his wife and kids. The family lives in Boulder, a city 30 miles northwest of Denver.

“That thought of getting out of bed on the morning of the 20th — probably I’ll get up a little bit later that morning — but I will deeply, deeply miss the shared mission here and the incredible group of people,” Boasberg said, referring to the day after he steps down.

Teacher Rebecca Erlichman said she’s appreciated having a shared vision under Boasberg.

“Even when you’re super stressed out, you know you’re all working toward a common goal,” said Erlichman, who is in her 11th year of teaching at Godsman Elementary School. “There’s something that’s really empowering about that.”

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Boasberg sits in a meeting with school board members in 2017.

But not everyone felt empowered by Boasberg. Students, parents, teachers, and residents whose schools and neighborhoods were in the crosshairs of his most controversial policies say he will be remembered for disregarding community voice.

Time and again, they said, district officials called meetings to gather community feedback on an unpopular proposal, dutifully wrote down people’s concerns in colored marker on white butcher paper, and then did whatever they were going to do anyway.

“You get a dog and pony show: D.P.S.,” said Jeff Fard, a Denver Public Schools graduate, parent, and black community activist. “I’ve sat through too many of those meetings where they’re listening to the community and they go out and do the exact opposite.”

“It doesn’t matter if you speak in a low, soft tone to our faces,” said Candi CdeBaca, a graduate who founded a nonprofit that trains youth to advocate on education issues. “What matters is what decisions you are making, or you are failing to make, behind closed doors.”

Even those who think Boasberg was a great leader admit that community engagement was an area of weakness for him.

“Maybe it was the type of decisions we had to make that were really hard,” said Mary Seawell, who served on the school board from 2009 to 2013 and was a Boasberg ally. But, she said, “it didn’t get better, it just deepened. I’m talking about parents who walked in, in good faith, to a gymnasium and ended up leaving disappointed.”

Recently retired teacher Margaret Bobb, who taught in the district for decades and was active in the teachers union, said teachers often felt the same way. Boasberg’s support for evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and his defense of a pay-for-performance system that some see as favoring one-time bonuses over salary raises, made his insistence that teachers are the most important ingredient in a good public education seem disingenuous, she said.

“As I reflect on Tom, it’s been 10 years of lip service to teachers but not anything tangible that shows he believes in their intrinsic value,” she said.

Others say that for all his talk of equity, Boasberg did not do well by teachers of color. Recent efforts to diversify the teaching force have barely moved the needle, perpetuating an environment where 76 percent of students are students of color but 73 percent of teachers are white. A report commissioned by the district in 2016 found that black teachers, who make up about 4 percent of the teaching force, felt isolated and passed-over for promotions.

Some educators of color have another interpretation of the district’s acronym: Don’t plan to stay.

Still others blame Boasberg’s commitment to school choice for exacerbating gentrification in Denver by making it easier for wealthier families to move into working-class neighborhoods, knowing they don’t have to send their children to the neighborhood schools.

Critics say all of that has hurt students of color and those from low-income families. While their test scores have risen over the years, they continue to lag behind those of their white and wealthier peers. Black and Latino students, and those living in poverty, have also borne the brunt of the district’s practice of closing low-performing schools.

Azlan Williams was a junior at Montbello High in 2010 when Boasberg proposed phasing it out and replacing it with three smaller schools. He went with his parents to the community meetings, and he remembers the anger and the pleas for more time to turn things around. Williams, who was a good student and star basketball player, also remembers the disappointment when they didn’t get it, and how his school, home of the Warriors, felt different after that.

“It was like the air came out of the school,” he said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Boasberg chats with teacher librarian Julia Torres, left, and the district’s director of library services, Caroline Hughes, middle, in the renovated library on the Montbello campus.

More than half an hour after leaving the elementary school for the Montbello campus, Boasberg walked into the new library around 6 p.m. There was comfy new furniture, $30,000 worth of new books, and five new flat-screen TVs that students in a book club organized by the new librarian used earlier that day to Skype with the author of a novel they’d just read.

The hard-won renovation “restores that sense of respect that the children do deserve nice things,” said librarian Julia Torres, who previously taught English at one of the schools on the campus. “This has been a huge confidence booster.”

Boasberg argues that the closure of Montbello High achieved its intended goal: better opportunities for the students in far northeast Denver. He points to the numbers as proof. In 2010, 333 students graduated from high schools in the region. This year, 768 did.

“Students are feeling more challenged, they’re getting more individualized supports, and the culture at our secondary schools is stronger,” Boasberg said recently.

There were no big speeches in the library, no ceremonial ribbon to cut. Just chit-chat and a tray of finger sandwiches. As the sky turned black, a small group headed outside. It included Boasberg; his deputy, Cordova; two school board members; three principals; and two of the football coaches who’d agitated hardest for the changes.

The field was flooded with light so white and sharp that it made everything look as if it were in high-definition. The head coach trotted over to shake Boasberg’s hand. It was a much different scene than when the coach had shown up at school board meetings to air concerns that his players, who come from several small schools but play together as the Warriors, had no lights and varying bell schedules that made it hard for everyone to get on the field before dark.

“I don’t have nothing else to ask you for,” coach Tony Lindsay said, laughing and grasping Boasberg’s arm, his breath visible in the chilly night air. “Now I gotta do my thing.”

Boasberg and the others watched the players practice for a minute before huddling in a circle. The principals thanked the district. Boasberg thanked the principals. He also thanked the coaches and community members for their advocacy — and their criticism.

“We needed to get to work here and make some really necessary improvements,” Boasberg said. “This is a night I will remember for a long time.”

Afterward, he stopped to chat with a group of teenage girls standing on the sideline. He asked what they thought of the lights. “Pretty good,” one said. And the library? The girls told him they didn’t go to school at Montbello. They went to a different small high school, one of the original three that had replaced Montbello High but had since moved to another location in the neighborhood. Their school, they said, doesn’t have a library.

As Boasberg turned to walk back into the building, he recounted the story to a school board member. Even though he was set to step down as superintendent in little more than a week, he hadn’t stopped thinking about the future of the district.

“I told them, ‘You’re next,’” he said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Boasberg addresses school officials, members of the media, and football coaches under the new lights.

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.