Education, Elections, Sherrie Peif, TABOR, Taxes

K-12 Education in 2016 both exciting and frustrating at times

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s clear this year has been an interesting one in the world of K-12 education.

Complete Colorado has been there for much of the fun and will be there again for what is expected to be an even more interesting 2017. We’d like to recap what we saw as the biggest news to come out of 2016.

The year started off with new faces on school boards across the state after a contentious 2015 election cycle that pitted reform-minded candidates against teacher association favorites.

In Jefferson County, the teachers association and its supporters pulled off a successful recall of three board members and replaced them with more union-friendly faces. Reform-minded candidates were also defeated by wide margins in Thompson School District in Loveland.

It didn’t take long for these new boards to roll back policies put in place by the old boards.

In Jefferson County, two big changes were:

  • The new board cancelled building a new school with cash, opting instead to authorize more than $50 million in new debt via Certificates of Participation.
  • Extending the teacher’s association’s master contract from one year to a multi-year deal

In Thompson, the new board also made changes by restoring the teachers’ master contract and dropping an appeal that could have ended collective bargaining practices with that district’s teachers’ association.

However, voters in both districts seemed unwilling to give the new boards free reign, as both districts lost requests for hefty bond and mill levy override requests ($535 million in Jefferson County and $288 million in Thompson).

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 is still dealing with fallout and investigations more than a year after Complete Colorado broke the news that a vulnerability existed with the security of student data. The district continues to deny there was ever an issue, even launching a criminal investigation into the whistleblower. At the district’s most recent school board meeting, the issue was discussed again. This time it was around the timelines of the breach and the subsequent investigations. Additionally, the board’s president Mark Pfoff stepped down from his role as president, saying his schedule was too busy for him to continue in that position. He remains on the board.

Lewis-Palmer parent and whistleblower Derek Araje has been calling for Pfoff’s resignation since 2015 for myriad reasons. Pfoff attempted to file criminal charges against Araje for the breach. That attempt failed.

The Douglas County School District found itself headed down the path of Jefferson County with student walkouts, an increase in open records requests from parents and media that forced the district to hire a dedicated clerk to fill them, disruptive board meetings that included the help and presence of the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, accusations of bullying against board members toward a student that resulted in an outside investigation and eventual exoneration of the board president and vice president. To end the year, the resignation of board member Doug Benevento and his replacement by Steve Peck turned into a showdown as board minority members Wendy Vogel, Anne-Marie Lemieux, and David Ray stalled the process and accused the board president of trying to game the system.

Colorado school districts asked for possibly a record setting amount of money (more than $4 billion) in the form of bond issues and mill levy overrides in the 2016 election. The top requests and their results were:

  • Denver Public Schools — $572 million – YES
  • Jefferson County School District — $535 million – NO
  • Poudre R1 (Fort Collins) — $375 million. This was a close race and required a recount, and is now stalled in legal maneuvers. According to the school district’s website: “Due to threatened litigation from a community member against the district, we cannot move forward and issue bonds until the courts resolve the legal questions involved.”
  • Adams 12 Five Star — $350 million – YES
  • Pueblo County 70 — $313 million – YES
  • Adams Arapahoe (Aurora Public Schools) — $300 million – YES
  • Thompson School District (Loveland) — $288 million – NO
  • Cherry Creek — $250 million – YES

Also saying no to a $12 million mill levy override were voters in Greeley-Evans School District 6. Despite those in favor of the effort raising more than $150,000 toward the effort and no organized campaign against it, nearly 52 percent of district voters shot it down. Greeley-Evans remains the only district among the largest districts in the state without a mill levy override. The district is vowing to take the issue back to voters again in 2017 and, according to the Greeley Tribune, threatening everything in the interim from eliminating transportation and moving to a four-day week to increasing class sizes and lowering a promised 3.75 percent raise for teachers in 2017-18.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Colorado State Board of Education has a Democratic majority. According to the Aurora Sentinal, Democrat Rebecca McClellan, who represents the Aurora area, beat out incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel by about 1,300 votes. The flip in philosophy could bring significant changes when it comes to how the board decides charter school decisions appealed from the local level.

The Hub Committee for the Colorado Department of Education continues to meet and work on the state plan for implementing the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. According to the CDE website, the Hub Committee was created to “provide oversight of the ESSA state plan development and act in an advisory capacity to the Department. The goal of the committee is to review and revise proposed state plan drafts that reflect a final consensus of the committee, the constituencies the members represent, and is in alignment with the vision of the State Board.”

On a national level, the NAACP released a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools based on beliefs that drew criticism from former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, attorney, and charter school advocate Terrance Carroll.

“It was pressure from outside, and the fact is the NAACP is believing the hype and not digging deep into the issue on its own,” Carroll told Complete Colorado. “They’re reading propaganda from the anti-charter folks. It doesn’t do anything but show the NAACP is out of step with the rest of African Americans in this country who want a good quality education for their students and support charter schools.”

Finally, a report released in December by Ross Izard of the Independence Institute will take on new meaning in 2017 as school finance conversations begin in the state legislature. The report outlines unionized school districts in Colorado that are currently in violation of state law because of their reduction-in-force (RIF) policies for teachers.

The superintendent for district Adams 27J in Brighton said the report took him by surprise, and he was unaware the district’s master agreement with the local teacher’s union still had outdated policies.

Superintendent Chris Fiedler said as soon as he saw the report he immediately began work to reverse it. He said state statute would always override the master union agreement as the district would not put itself in the position of facing a lawsuit by a teacher for failing to adhere to state law.

“We haven’t used the RIF language to let folks go, so it wouldn’t have come up,” Fiedler said. “I forwarded the report to my chief human resources officer to make sure we get that down for negotiations this spring. Had we had a RIF … we would have been at risk by not following the law. My thoughts are the statute is going to override our (master contract) agreement (with the teachers union). So we would follow the law. The repercussions for not following the agreement would be a grievance from the association. If they were to aggrieve that, my response would be ‘Hey, it’s against the law, so we’re going to follow the statute.’


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