As president of the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education, I receive many letters asking about this board's vision and priorities. I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on the most common topics. The Jeffco board has five members with varying histories, perspectives, and focuses. This article is mine, and I am speaking for myself.
Let’s start by finding a few points on which we agree.
We can all agree that our students in Jeffco deserve access to a public school education that prepares them for life.
We can all agree that each individual student is a bit different from other students, and therefore a cookie cutter system is unlikely to work for many of our children.
We can also agree that great teachers are fundamental in a successful school system, and we want to support our teachers.
When our juniors took the national ACT test last year, only 45 percent were close to career or college ready. Fifty-five percent of our high school juniors were behind in math and reading, and 61 percent were behind in science. I’ll bet you would also agree there is room here for improvement.
What are my priorities? They are
• Improved student achievement;
• Accountability for results with data driven decisions;
• Genuine transparency;
• Educational options for all students;
• An increase in parental involvement; and,
• Earned flexibility for high-performing schools.
Better outcomes begin with higher goals. The entire board agreed upon five academic achievement goals back in December. These goals include making sure our third graders can read and our fourth graders are up to speed with their math. I intend to prioritize investments so resources are allocated to meeting these goals and improving our ability to measure our progress.
The achievement goals will have to be met in the classroom by talented teachers and engaged students. That means we need to attract and hold onto the best teachers possible. Outstanding teachers expect to be measured and rewarded based on the whole of their work, not one person’s opinion or one test. We want to spend money on things that work and compensate teachers like professionals.
In addition to competitive pay, our teachers need a manageable workload. They need more time with their students, and less time preparing for and administering tests and assessments or doing non-essential tasks. We are investing in tools for our teachers, and we are dedicated to using data to measure what is effective.
Sometimes something “feels” like the right thing to do, but the data may show the opposite. An example is the request to expand “free full-day kindergarten.” That sounds great, until you consider the district has no system to measure the quality or effectiveness of such a program.
Nor does the proposal presented treat Jeffco families fairly. A parent who can afford the fee for full-day kindergarten would get it free for their children if they happen to attend a subsidized school. Meanwhile, a family that lives in poverty, but near a school without free full-day kindergarten, would have to leave their neighborhood school just to have access. This is not a fair use of resources.
Negotiations help the board prioritize how to make some of these investments. This year we had begun negotiations in open sessions, a first in recent memory. Unfortunately, our Association declared impasse and walked out of the open sessions. The contract defines the next step as mediation/fact finding, which is required to happen in closed sessions with a paid mediator.
I am especially disappointed that union leadership suggested, in announcing the impasse, that the Jeffco school board does not have the best interest of our students in mind. It is unfortunate that officials elected by Jeffco citizens would be characterized in such an unfair manner.
The board has an $11.7 million place holder for compensation increases, including increased costs for PERA retirement benefits and the costs associated with the new Affordable Care Act. This is the amount recommended as a result of the 2013 summit negotiations. How those dollars are distributed is the basis for negotiations. I’d like to see higher pay for our newer teachers, as Jeffco is not currently competitive. I also believe that raises should be awarded based on effectiveness rather than tenure.
Taking on these big goals inevitably means there will be changes, and we will ensure those changes focus on what is needed to improve results. Let’s face it: without change, there can be no improvement.
Jeffco is a large and diverse district. Creating a great public school system takes respectful, open conversations; patience; and a real commitment to our students and their families. Let’s keep the conversation going. Working together, we can create a great school district for Jeffco kids.
Ken Witt, firstname.lastname@example.org