Parents Fight Conservative Zealots and Charter School Advocates For Control of Their Kids' Education
It's Tuesday evening, and people have come to church — but not for religion.
What's bringing people to Green Mountain United Methodist Church in the heart of Lakewood, Colorado, is a meeting modestly titled "Church and society: Stand up for students."
In a cramped, wood-paneled room on the second floor, two dozen attendees rise, one after another, to introduce themselves and say why they are here. "I'm concerned," say a few. "Scary," "outrageous," say others.
A neatly dressed elderly man speaks up: "When you've been given a lot for the education of your own children, it's important that the children after yours get that same level of education, or better. I don't believe we're doing that."
"I have two children in school," a younger woman says. "I hear things that are troubling. So I'm here to learn more."
The last woman to introduce herself, wearing a T-shirt declaring she is a "Jeffco Rebel," starts a stack of handouts circulating around the room. That's when a woman seated at the head of the room says, "We're here to arm you with information."
This is Jefferson County, Colorado.
Sprawling westward from the Denver skyline, where the front range of the Rockies sharpens its ascension to the peaks, Jeffco, as the locals call it, is experiencing an acrimonious debate about its public schools.
At scores of house parties like this one, parents and public school activists circulate flyers and repeat a well-rehearsed message of dissent. They complain of a new school board majority that is secretive, disrespectful to parents and teachers and irresponsible with tax dollars. They warn of the influence of right-wing groups, some with connections to evangelical Christianity. They complain of a powerful charter school industry, different from the "organic charters" Jeffco parents already send their kids to.
Behind every grassroots issue they identify lies a much "bigger thing," as more than one parent will tell you.
It's a complicated narrative that defies stereotypes and neat polarities. Although the fight is political, Republicans and Democrats are distributed on both sides of the debate. The argument is about education, but it's not an argument over pro-charter school versus anti-charter. Jeffco has had charters for years, many of which are highly popular with parents. Neither is this a narrative about choice versus anti-choice. Jeffco already allows parents to enroll their children in any school in the district (although there are cases of selective enrollment), and many families do opt for a school other than their neighborhood one.
Jeffco is a mostly white, middle-class and suburban school district that hardly resembles the "failing" school systems you're used to hearing about. According to the district's website, Jeffco students "outperform the state in all grade levels and content areas" on state mandated achievement tests. Six of the district's high schools rank in the top 40 of the 2014 Best High Schools in America according to U.S. News & World Report, and 11 elementary schools were listed as 5280 Magazine's top public elementary schools.
And Jeffco is not a community where teachers' unions are defending their turf from disgruntled parents. Parents, not union operatives, lead the numerous and frequent house parties like the one at Green Mountain Church.
What is also true about Jeffco is that the story unfolding here is one that is recurring across the country, as community after community becomes mired in debates about who gets to call the shots in education systems strained by unending financial austerity and an unremitting "reform" agenda whose intent is unclear to the people in its way.
A Conflict About Curriculum
Jefferson County was first thrust into the media spotlight in 1999, when two armed students committed horrific killings at Columbine High School. More recently, this district of over 85,000 students, the second largest in the state, made headlines again when mass student walkouts occurred in high schools across the district to voice concerns over a proposed review of an AP U.S. history course.
As the Associated Press reported at the time, students were alarmed that the stated purpose of the review was "to make sure materials 'promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights' and don't 'encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.'"
The students took to the streets multiple days in a row to voice their right to learn about the history of protest and civil disobedience that helped create the country they live in today. Some teachers got involved as well, staging a "mass sick-out" in support of the students.
When MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed two student leaders of the protest, Ashlyn Maher and Kyle Ferris, Ferris explained, "We wanted to get the school board's attention. They're not really listening to the concerns of the community."
"What else is all of this about?" Harris-Perry asked.
Ferris replied there were indeed other issues including "teachers' wages, which they're messing with," and "funneling funds away from public into charter schools."
The glare of the national spotlight persuaded the board to drop the review, but "the ugly battle over public education in Jefferson County," as a local reporter phrased it, raged on after the attention of mainstream media receded.
Had the national media stayed a little longer and dug a little deeper they would have found the conflict over history curriculum is but a symptom of a much bigger issue.
Who's Messin' With Jeffco?
Over coffee at a Lakewood Starbucks, Kyle Ferris' mother Barbara now dismisses the national media's focus on her son's activism as "the flavor of the day."
For sure, Ferris supported her son's actions. "When Kyle came to me saying he and other students wanted to stage a walkout, my input was to encourage him to clearly state his reasons for the walkout," she recalls.
What she values most about the protest is, "It got a group of kids to demonstrate the critical thinking they were taught in class," she says. "It increased their awareness of other big issues."
What other big issues?
"A lot of the problems have risen from the new board that emerged from the recent election," Ferris explains. "We now have a majority that is influenced by the Tea Party with an agenda right out of right-wing talk radio."
Ferris also worries about the growing influence of charter schools in the district, pointing to recent actions the board has taken to send more money to charter schools at a time when neighborhood schools still haven't recovered from the effects of the recession. She says parents are still reeling from the impact of fees, imposed after the recession hit, for bus transportation and other services, and she wonders why funding sent to charter schools isn't instead being used to end the fees.
Ferris is quick to add that she is not opposed to the idea of charter schools. But the urgency to establish more of them now escapes her. "Jeffco already has a phenomenal choice system," she explains.
Ferris, an Asian American who decided with her husband to move to Jeffco "for the schools," now sees a troubling landscape in her community. "We've got great schools; we've got great teachers," she says. "I don't want things to get messed up."
"Everyone believes they are doing the right thing," she says. "But we don't believe in the same things."
Nothing Funny About This
One belief most in dispute in Jeffco is the role of community voice in running the schools. That issue is especially central to the parent-led house parties. Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine are two Jeffco parents who often lead those events. In some respects, they're a collaboration of opposites. Fitzler is a lifelong Republican, while Levine is an avowed Democrat. Fitzler still has children in Jeffco public schools, while Levine's children have graduated and moved on. The issue that initially brought them together was the chronic underfunding, in their minds, of Jeffco schools. They both actively campaigned for a countywide referendum — a "mill levy and bond" issue — to offset budget cuts from the state. The referendum passed.
But the target of their ire now is the new conservative school board majority, elected in 2013. In that election, a slate of three candidates— Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams— ran together and branded themselves “WNW.” The three candidates got the backing of the Jefferson County GOP and an organization called Jeffco Students First, a state-based education advocacy group patterned after the controversial national organization StudentsFirst (founded and formerly led by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, DC public schools). StudentsFirst and its Colorado state version promote an "education reform" agenda that favors charter schools, vouchers, grading schools and educators based on student test scores, and drastically altering teacher compensation, performance evaluation, and job protection.
WNW "came out of nowhere," according to Levine. The Jeffco Republican Party lauded the three candidates for their business experience – Witt's in information technology, Newkirk's in engineering, and Williams as an office manager of an orthodontics clinic. Williams has ties to the Republican Party that run particularly deep. According to the Denver Post, she is related by marriage to the influential Neville family, who the article describes as, "A Colorado political family deeply connected to the state's most strident gun-rights group."
With strong financial backing, the three took advantage of a statewide conservative wave and an unpopular ballot amendment to handily win.
Once WNW took office, they worked in unison to advance their reform agenda, which is generally opposed by the two remaining Jeffco board members, 2nd vice president Lesley Dahlkemper of District 4* and District 3 representative Jill Fellman, whose terms don't end until 2015.
Fritzler's and Levine's concerns with WNW led them to start Support Jeffco Kids. In school board meetings and on social media, they openly question board actions and hector the decision-making process and personal conduct of the three conservatives.
In separate discussions, each complains that the WNW trio ignores public opinion. As proof, they point to a community survey conducted in 2014 showing strong majorities of Jeffco citizens favoring smaller class sizes, full-day kindergarten, higher teacher salaries, and continued funding of school electives such as art and music. Yet the new board majority made numerous decisions to direct money to other efforts, including a $400,000 emergency loan to a charter school, a $280,000 salary for the new superintendent ($70,000 more than the previous superintendent), a newly created board attorney position without any explanation of the need for the attorney, and a decision to send $3.7 million more in "mill levy" funds to charter schools — funds Fitzler and Levine worked to enact and voters approved before the new majority was elected.
Additionally, the board majority voted to withhold $600,000 in funds for full-day kindergarten, despite the fact that, as a reporter for local news outlet Chalkbeat Colorado points out, "In neighboring Denver Public Schools, local data on the impact of full-day kindergarten show that full-day students do better in reading than their half-day peers… 57 percent of Denver’s kindergarteners who attended full-day programs between 2001-02 and 2008-9 scored proficient or advanced on third-grade reading tests, compared to 51 percent of half-day kindergarteners."
More recently, the board also ruled out higher pay for teachers in the upcoming year.
Fitzler and Levine also question the creation of a new charter school, Golden View Classical Academy, that is part of a national chain based in Michigan. They question why the site for the new charter is a one-minute walk across the street from a community created and led charter school, Free Horizon Montessori, founded in 2002.
The two women see charter school expansions being prioritized over new school construction. Jeffco clearly has a problem with overcrowding and needs to build new schools for the district. But the board recently came up $10 million short in its effort to fund construction of a new school.
"The agenda seems to be to bring in more charters for the sake of charters," Levine argues. She also sees new charters as being fundamentally different from existing ones. In her view, the new board majority seems to favor charter schools, like Golden View Classical Academy, that come from outside the community and are run by charter management organizations. Golden View is affiliated with a chain of charter schools based in Michigan. She sees this as "trying to drive a wedge between existing charters" which are more apt to be stand-alone independent schools with board members hailing from a Jeffco addresses. (Free Horizon Montessori, for instance, is governed by a board of directors made up of nine community members, according to the school's website.)
To activist parents like Fitzler and Levine, the notion of outsiders calling the shots for their local schools is something they just can’t stomach.
Jeffco on the Menu
So who are the outsiders invading Jeffco schools, and what do they want?
Jeffco public school activists describe a strange combination of forces undermining their local control, from right-wing operatives and evangelical Christians to billionaire businessmen and charter school entrepreneurs. The declared intentions of these characters span the culture war spectrum: with some holding high the values of freedom and patriotism and others claiming to fight "the civil rights cause of our time."
But the way these Jeffco parents and educators see it, their community is being picked over the way a glutton works the all-you-can-eat salad bar. He may start off with a small plate, but he's quickly back for more.
The influence of outsiders, in fact, is one of the factors that doomed the new board majority to controversy even before they were elected.
Dougco Is Coming
As an article in the Denver Post documented in November 2013, days before the election, three wealthy businessmen contributed an out-sized quantity of money— more than $200,000— to school board races in Colorado, including the effort to elect Witt, Newkirk and Williams in Jeffco.
None of the three men appears to live in Jefferson County. The first, C. Edward McVaney is co-founder of software company J.D. Edwards and founding trustee of Valor Christian High School, an independent private Christian high school in Douglas County Colorado. McVaney has a propensity for donating to school board candidates around the state who favor school vouchers. The second is Denver businessman Ralph Nagel, president of Top Rock LLC, an investment firm. The third is Alex Cranberg, CEO of Aspect Energy, who Forbes describes as a "Texas oilman." Cranberg's notoriety stems primarily from his company's venture into oil drilling in Iraq.
The reporters introduce the trio as, "Financial backers who want school districts to adopt the anti-union, pro-voucher, and school-choice model set by Douglas County." Another wealthy man, also from Douglas County, hosted a fundraiser to elect the WNW team. According to reporters, the bash raised another $30,000.
Douglas County, or Dougco in Coloradan parlance, lies to the south of Denver and shares its western border with Jeffco. Dougco emerged four years ago as a genesis — according to Colorado Chalkbeat editor Todd Engdahl — of a new trend in the state to turn school board elections into highly "partisan" affairs in which wealthy individuals back a slate of candidates who support more "choice options," including more charter schools and school voucher programs that allow parents to redirect public dollars to private schools. The effort has been successful in Dougco where a conservative board has greatly expanded charters and instituted a school voucher program.
Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Dougco's school voucher program unconstitutional for violating the transfer of "any public fund or moneys" to "any church or sectarian society." Most of the schools involved in the program were religious. Dougco school officials have vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Denver Post.
As Chalkbeat's Engdahl notes, two of the wealthy individuals spending heavily to elect a conservative slate to the school board in Jeffco were Alex Cranberg and Ralph Nagel — who saw such success for their efforts in Dougco.
Here Come the Koch Brothers
Another major influencer in the public education system in Colorado has been Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization founded by Charles and David Koch. As a report in Politico noted at the time of the Dougco school board race, "Americans for Prosperity is spending big" in support of candidates who favor an agenda of making schools "compete with one another for market share" and allowing tax money to go to religious education.
The reporter, Stephanie Simon, wrote, "Conservatives across the U.S. see Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere."
Among those conservatives was former Florida governor, now declared presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, who donated $1,000 to each of the Koch-backed candidates in Dougco. Money raised for those conservatives dwarfed that raised for the challengers, ensuring a conservative win and establishing a theme that has been occurring throughout practically all of Colorado.
The influence of Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers is clearly being felt in Jeffco. Recently, parents across the district received an email from AFP urging them to contact the Jeffco school board to push for an increase in funding for charter schools— a measure which eventually passed. And the district's new Golden View Classical Academy has a connection to AFP and the Kochs through an influential private college in Michigan.
Here Come the Fundamentalist Christians
Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan is an intriguing ingredient in the school choice stewpot. Regarded as "the conservative Harvard," in some circles, Hillsdale has received generous donations from the Kochs' foundation.
Hillsdale College has a decidedly Christian religious bent, coming in second on the Princeton Review's list of "10 Colleges with the Most Religious Students," according to an article in the Huffington Post. The college's mission statement says, "The College considers itself a trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law."
Most recently, outsports.com, an outlet focused on LGBT issues for athletes, reported the Hillsdale chaplain "sent an email to athletes, coaches, students, faculty and alumni from the school warning them about same-sex marriage and inviting them to pray to destroy 'evil' same-sex marriage." According to another gay rights activist website, a Hillsdale official walked back the college's role in issuing the statement, but the email certainly reinforced Hillsdale's long-held reputation for discriminating on the basis of gender preference and identity.
Interestingly, Hillsdale does not accept credit for an AP American History course high school students across the nation take — the very course Jeffco students were defending for their schools.
In addition to spreading its education philosophy, Hillsdale operates the Barney Charter School Initiative, which is essentially a consultant service for a chain of charter schools called Classical Academies. Each of these charters ascribes to what Barney calls "a foundation of classical liberal arts learning — the kind of learning best suited to a free society and most needed for its preservation."
Colorado currently has 17 Classical Academies, though it's not clear to what extent each is connected to Barney (a representative from a public relations firm claiming to represent Hillsdale was unable to provide clarification before press time). The newest is Golden View, which listed its association with the Barney Initiative on its application.
Barney also has a strong political agenda. Its mission is to "recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West."
According to the Barney project, "The charter school vehicle possesses the conceptual elements that permit the launching of a significant campaign of classical school planting to redeem American public education."
So public education in Jeffco needs a "redeemer"?
Our Education Redeemers
Approval of Jeffco’s Golden View came despite strong objections from board members Dahlkemper and Fellman. According to a state news outlet, the application was accepted and passed by the board despite the school's request for 17 waivers of state and district laws including those governing student data privacy, the prevention of bullying and discrimination, and student conduct.
Dahlkemper and Fellman had good reasons for their concerns. In 2009, parent complaints about racism and religious intolerance at a Classical Academy in Colorado Springs caused the Colorado Department of Education to seek an inquiry. The ensuing investigation of the school found "major areas of concern about management, safety, and security of students," including failure to "take appropriate corrective action in a timely manner in responding to sexual and physical assaults … a pattern of bullying of parents and students … threats against students and parents … retaliation by staff in response to complaints." Conflicts of interest and problems with financial mismanagement also made the list of concerns.
Posting on a Colorado blog, Margaret Lessenger, a Jeffco parent who helped found Free Horizon Montessori, adds more concerns over Golden View's approval. "In Jeffco, charter schools [like the charter she founded] are run by a board of directors elected by the parents of the school … If [Golden View] actually does implement extreme conservative indoctrination or operates with a religious Christian undertone, parents will have no power to vote for new directors. The founders of [Golden View] will select the first board of directors. Each board will select the next board of directors. Parents will have no say…. Parents will be powerless."
In a private conversation with Lessenger, she expands her compare/contrast between Golden View charter and the Montessori "district-charter" (her term) she helped found and sent her son to. She worries that "there are influencers in the [new charter] that are outside the community. There are ways people are using the school to make money."
She argues she never became involved with a charter school because it was a charter. "It was what my child needed," she says. "If there had been a public school with a Montessori approach, I would have sent him to that."
When asked to explain why she opposes Golden View yet supports a charter school education for her own son, she explains, "Montessori is a way of learning, not the content."
She disagrees that Classical Academy offers a "way of learning" other students could benefit from. "This classical curriculum is a Christian curriculum," she argues. "The Colorado Constitution is quite specific that there's a separation of church and state," so the approach could never be implemented anywhere else other than a privately operated school shielded from democratic governance.
During the contentious hearing when the new board majority muscled through Golden View's approval, the school's founder Derec Shuler repeatedly contended "the school will not include a religious teaching," according to a local news outlet.
But should Jeffco parents and citizens find that's not the case, what can they do?
There could be some justification for imposing the Dougco charter school model on Jeffco if there were real proof that model could generate genuine academic gains.
But based on analysis available at the Support Jeffco Kids website, there's not much evidence it can.
One video posted on the site points out that the student demographics of the two districts are quite different, with Jeffco schools having a far more diverse spread of low-income versus upper-income students. Virtually all research shows that scores on standardized tests, the most commonly used metric for student achievement, are strongly correlated to family income, so taking student demographics into account is essential.
While some Jeffco schools have 90 percent of students from households qualifying for free and reduced price lunch — the customary metric for student family income— other schools have only five percent. In Dougco, the vast majority of schools have 30 percent or fewer of their students receiving free and reduced price lunch. So straight-up comparisons of the two districts are just not useful. However, when schools with similar demographics are compared in an apples-to-apples comparison (at the 2:55 mark of the video), it's clear Jeffco schools actually outperform Dougco schools on state reading assessments.
What's more, another video comparing Dougco to the 11 largest school districts in the Colorado Front Range region shows Dougco schools actually underperform the other districts on reading, writing, and math state assessments, despite Dougco's being the wealthiest school district in the state.
There's even evidence the performance of Dougco schools may be getting worse. On most measures, performance is lower in 2014 (the most recent year available) than in 2009. At the 2:22 mark, the video shows that while most of the 11 districts in the analysis have been making steady gains on state assessments, Dougco has been among the few districts where school performance, at least as it is measured by state standardized tests, has declined.
You Want Innovation?
Another common argument for expanding charter schools is that they will bring innovation to a school district that has grown lazy due to "bureaucracy" and "complacent teachers."
The influential charter school lobby in Colorado has promised that charters will be more "innovative" than public schools. But anyone who can't find signs of innovation already in Jeffco public schools simply isn't looking or has blinders on.
In fact, experts at the National Education Policy Center, a progressive education research center and think tank affiliated with the University of Colorado in Boulder, recently recognized two Jeffco high schools for being “Schools of Opportunity,” a designation for having "excellent practices designed to expand student opportunity and access to academic success," according to the NEPC announcement.
NEPC's School of Opportunity project analyzed schools in two states, Colorado and New York, based on 11 specific principles identified by experts as critical to closing "opportunity gaps" that exist between high-income school children and their lower income peers. Those principles include more and better learning time, a broader and richer curriculum, and attention to students' individual academic, health and language needs.
The two Jeffco schools receiving this recognition were Jefferson County Open School, which received a Gold Medal, and Long View High School, which received Silver.
Site visits to these schools quickly reveal they are anything but "typical."
At Long View, founder and lead teacher Pete Tierney explains how his small enrollment high school, with just 65 students, could be mistaken for a charter or private school model, yet there's been no reason to go those routes. "The Jeffco school board and administration has always been supportive of us," he explains. "We've had a deal great of independence."
The great independence Long View has received has allowed the school to practice what Tierney calls a "family model," described on the NEPC School of Opportunity website as being characterized by small school size "where genuine interactions can happen between and among all school members throughout each day.” The school’s safety is linked to its concept of community and connection to the larger community through service learning, guest speakers and experiential field trips. All of this reflects the school’s core goals: being a community, learning from the larger community, and contributing to that community.
Tierney believes the small size of the school and its emphasis on close relationships is especially well-suited to students who've had difficulties in other schools due to either learning disabilities, personal trauma, school culture, or individual interests. Tierney believes that if his school didn't exist a high percentage of the students who attend it now would probably drop out. Indeed, one classroom of students confirmed this in conversation, with many of them sharing complaints they had with other schools they've attended and extolling the family environment of Long View.
The school practices the Socratic method of instruction with heavy emphasis on discussion and writing. Although the school must adhere to state and district guidelines for curriculum, the small scale and personalized approach allows students to engage in a remarkable range of projects and activities including field trips, science projects and learning opportunities that extend outside the school into the surrounding community. One group of students recently competed at the state level in a contest for robot design. Some students blend their high school work with attendance at a nearby community college. Final exams are a "celebration of knowledge."
When asked how the school ranks in today's favored measures of achievement, such as standardized tests scores, Tierney says, "We pay attention to it. But I'm not obsessed with data points."
Jefferson County Open School shares some of the philosophy practiced by Long View High but for a longer time and on a larger scale. During a site visit to the school, principal Scott Bain explains that the Open School started as an elementary school in the fall of 1970, then expanded to higher school grades in 1975, well before charter schools arrived in the state. The school enrolls 525 students.
Students in the Open School also follow a highly personalized schooling program with small class sizes throughout all grade levels. Curriculum and instruction are designed around self-directed learning projects in broad subject areas that are inherently interdisciplinary. Because the projects are designed by the students, working with a faculty advisor who guides their work, the learning is more apt to be personally meaningful and relevant to the students.
Students at the Open School begin every year with a wilderness trip where they build connections and community with their peers and teachers. Throughout the year, they engage in other field trip experiences, some of them quite extensive, including trips outside the U.S. or excursions that are exclusive to the school. The Open School is the only high school in the country permitted to conduct archaeological mapping and documentation in Navaho territory. "The money the district sends us for athletics, we use for field trips," Bain explains.
Many of the in-school programs at Open School are quite inventive too, including a student-run breakfast cafÃ© that the students operate as a business; the profits also fund field trips.
Students at the Open School receive no grades; all courses end in a non-graded evaluation, where students demonstrate competency toward graduation expectations. Instead, students are required to demonstrate "expectations" in projects and portfolios and complete a self-evaluation with personal narrative at the end of each course. What passes for a high school transcript is a student-produced thesis.
The absence of grades has never been an impediment to getting into college, Bain says. "That's a misnomer. Ninety-one percent of our graduates eventually go to college and 85 percent complete a degree."
What about the school's achievement data? "We do pretty well with our [low-income] students who receive free and reduced price lunch," Bain states. "So we don't have much of an achievement gap, which is interesting because we don't really do anything intentional to ensure that.
"You have to come see the school to understand how it works," Bain says.
Of course, not all Jeffco schools are small-scale operations where open-ended, individualized instruction takes place. Alameda International High School, also in Lakewood, has more of the appearance of a "typical" high school with athletic fields, classrooms with desks in rows, and a school security guard meeting everyone who comes through the front door.
The school — which serves a student body that is 86 percent minority with over 50 percent non-native English speakers— was placed on turnaround status by the state five years ago based on its state assessments outcomes, graduation rate and other criteria. But that hasn't kept Alameda from being innovative. In an interview in her office, Alameda principal Susie Van Scoyk explains the difficult process of the turnaround. When she arrived, families were "choosing out" of the school and student enrollment was in a downward spiral.
Lack of funding has been a particular challenge as well. When Van Scoyk arrived, school sports programs were in a shambles and the marching band had long been disbanded.
Her school, which is close to the Denver border, also struggles to attract and keep talented teachers. Teacher salaries in Jeffco start at $33,000, while new teachers in Denver receive $40,000. And the disparity grows as teacher experience lengthens. Last year was particularly difficult for Van Scoyk, after many of her most experienced teachers left Alameda for higher pay in the city.
Despite the challenges, one of Van Scoyk's first decisions after taking the school's leadership reins was to convert the school to an International Baccalaureate program. IB has a reputation for being more challenging, with higher-level course requirements including foreign language. Schools have to receive authorization to claim the brand.
Van Scoyk believes Alameda is making progress. The sports programs have been restored, and the marching band is on the field again, although still wearing uniforms from 1999. "We're bringing back the arts, too," she adds. The number of students completing the degree program has increased every year, and graduation rates are higher.
"We're getting our neighborhood kids back," Van Scoyk maintains, "and not losing as many students to charters." Student enrollment is now over 900 compared to 700 when she came. "It's taken five years to get to this, and we know the work is nowhere near done," she adds.
Some of the innovation that's been happening in Jeffco schools these many years has to be credited to the district's leadership. For the past 13 years, the district has been led by Cindy Stevenson, a 41-year veteran who began her education career as a Jeffco classroom teacher. However, with the election of WNW, it became clear a leadership change would soon be in the offing, and Stevenson abruptly resigned before the end of the 2014-'15 school year due to her incompatibility with the new board majority. “They do not trust me,” she told a local reporter.
In her place, the new board majority quickly inserted, in a three-two vote, Daniel McMinimee, the only candidate considered for the job and chosen without any public hearing. Before he took the reins in Jeffco, McMinimee’s previous job was as assistant superintendent— in Douglas County.
You Don't Tear Down What's Working
"I'm amazed and impressed at what we're doing," Fitzler says about Jeffco schools. "Is everything perfect? No. But you don't tear down what's working."
Being a Republican, Fitzler initially needed to be convinced Jeffco public schools were being good financial stewards. She was also on the receiving end of the Republican messaging campaign that argued for budget cuts and more outsourcing to charter schools.
"So I looked for myself to see if there was any waste," she says. "I didn't find it. I was amazed at how far we were getting despite the cuts."
So instead of tearing things down, what would Fitzler like to see instead?
"I want my school back," she answers. "This is our community. We could leave if we want. But these are our schools."
Levine adds, "They look at school governance like it's a business decision. But it's not a business decision. You can't run a school district like a business … I want a board willing to treat community as partners. They go through the motions of doing this but they don't do it."
Fitzler and Levine are hardly alone in their disapproval of the current board majority. In fact, another Jeffco-based parent-led advocacy organization — Jeffco United for Action — has recently proposed a recall petition of Witt, Newkirk, and Williams.
According to the Denver Post, "The proposed petition criticizes the board for attempts to censor U.S. history classes, violating open meeting laws and claims the board has 'wasted millions of taxpayer dollars,' including on a high salary for the new superintendent and legal expenses."
The Post reporter quotes from the Jeffco United news release: “The board majority members are taking away the opportunity for our Jeffco students to succeed by failing to do what we elected them to do— represent the voice of the entire community and not just those who voted for them."
Of course, what everyone involved in the Jeffco school fracas says they want are wonderful outcomes for all Jeffco kids and their families. They want children succeeding in school and loving learning. They want students who struggle with school doing better. They want high school graduates who go on to college degrees, successful employment, engaged citizenry. They want families feeling they are being well served, and taxpayers feeling confident their money isn't being wasted.
This is the "right thing," to use Barbara Ferris' words—what everyone feels they are working toward, no matter where they fall in the debate.
"But we don't believe in the same things."
One thing parents in Jeffco believe for sure is they should have more of a democratic say-so in how their schools are run. Do their adversaries believe the same? Apparently, not so much.
*Correction: This article originally identified Lesley Dahlkemper as the current school board president; her correct title is in fact 2nd vice president.