Volume 3 Issue 3

Is the Recall about Politics or Control?

by Sheila Atwell

Since November 2013, when the new board was elected by large margins and with far greater turnout than in 2011, we have watched the reaction by status quo supporters as their tone has become increasingly vicious. 

The former superintendent notified the media of her early retirement the morning after the election. At the November 7 school board meeting, her announcement was met with tears and fear.

The three new board members campaigned on a promise to focus on higher student achievement, fiscal responsibility, prioritizing data privacy, and ensuring parents have a more active role in decisions for their students. These are all things the former superintendent publicly supported, so many of us wondered why she felt the need to declare her decision to walk away just after a board was elected. 

The new school board’s first decision that drew criticism was the selection of a new attorney to do work directly for the board after the district’s attorney resigned. Although all previous Jeffco boards have had their own attorney, they had not ever been hired in public. The board put on the public agenda their intent to hire an attorney. The status quo backers responded by ramping up their smear campaign, accusing the board of waste and secrecy. The levels of fear and distrust skyrocketed. 

At their first Saturday retreat in December 2013, the new board focused on students, as all five board members agreed to set higher achievement goals for the district. It looked as if peace might reign in the kingdom. 

The school board held the next several meetings all across the district at different high school auditoriums to make it easier for the community to participate and improve transparency. They made the circuit while the technology to live-stream meetings was being installed in the fifth floor board room at headquarters. 

Unfortunately, JCEA-produced fliers floated around some of those early board meetings. The leaflets absurdly claimed the union contract would be terminated, that teacher salaries would be reduced to $25,000, and that the board majority was taking Jeffco down the Dougco path. 

(False, False, and False: A new union contract was just signed last month; teacher compensation has increased 7 percent since the new board was elected; and Jeffco is forging its own path forward.)

More signs of serious discontent from the status quo crowd began when the board requested to learn more about the district budget, pay for performance, and the $39 million federal grant Jeffco was using to pilot different professional support and pay models. 

At the early February 2014 meeting, intended to be a study session on the district budget, the superintendent announced she would not stay through the end of the year after all, but would be leaving by the end of the month. The raucous meeting was packed with very angry status quo supporters, likely a response to a union “all call” that went out that week asking everyone to wear black and show up at the meeting.  

And thus it began…videos of chaos in the Jeffco board room, chaos embodied by the same people who seek to recall the board majority for doing some things broadly popular and reasonable—discussing pay raises based on how well a person performs their job, treating all students equitably, and focusing on improving student achievement. 

Board meetings for the rest of the spring were packed with people, most of whom were well rehearsed with talking points spreading far more fear than facts. 

Union leadership stirred the fires again during the 2014 contract negotiations, which began in March and were conducted in open view for the first time in recent memory. After three sessions the union called an impasse, which moved the negotiations back behind closed doors—allowing rumors to flourish. 

Condemnation swiftly fell again in May when Dan McMinimee was announced as the sole finalist for the superintendent job. All attention was placed on the fact that McMinimee had served as assistant superintendent in Douglas County (which has experienced a similar smear campaign). 

Never mind Mr. McMinimee is a Jeffco resident, former teacher, coach and principal, and sent his two children through Jeffco schools—all traits that teachers and parents alike deemed important when asked. 

The board was blasted for offering a pay package higher than the previous superintendent’s, despite the fact that it was the suggested package when the search began. Recall supporters have resorted to comparing Mr. McMinimee’s compensation including bonuses and retirement to Dr. Stevenson’s base salary—an obvious apples and oranges comparison.

The union organized a large rally on Wadsworth in the middle of May 2014 to protest the board and the new superintendent. Calling it “Boots on the Boulevard,” they promoted the event in their newsletters and to parents at the schools.

Less than two months later, at the national teachers’ union annual confab held in Denver, the Colorado Union president (and former Jeffco president) announced the “crisis” in Jefferson County to her membership. She also thanked the 48 paid operatives from across the country who would be knocking on doors in Jeffco over the summer. 

Was the crisis about Alameda and Jefferson High Schools, where student achievement has languished for more than a decade? No, it was the reform school board that was intent on holding the system accountable and moving power to parents that the union deemed to be a crisis. 

Then in September 2014, at precisely the same time as the new pay for performance schedule was approved, the status quo folks (union) struck “crisis gold” when one board member suggested the district needed a transparent curriculum review process and proposed the newly revised AP U.S. History framework should be one of the first undertakings. 

(Within the past few months, the College Board released a new version of the course outline, agreeing that the previous version did not present a balanced view.)

Review of curriculum is a mandate of local school boards. But in this case, the word “censorship” was invoked, and we were off to the races. High school students marched on headquarters and along Wadsworth. Never mind that early videos show students telling reporters that their teachers told them to protest and it was because “they weren’t getting paid enough,” this was billed as legitimate civil disobedience. 

It is very hard not to link the protests with the union, when teachers were simultaneously holding “sickouts” where excessive absences closed several schools for the day. Demonstrations against the new pay system, which gives higher raises to highly effective teachers, were cloaked behind rhetoric of a phony “censorship” controversy. Perhaps more laughably, emails circulated by union reps declared that the JCEA “supports” the sickout but “can’t officially organize one.”

Again, the chaos and crisis generated by the status quo supporters was used to justify the discontent and held out as proof that the board was not listening to the community. Certainly, the discontent wasn’t based on the following actual policy changes, all of which have proven extremely popular with the community:

  • Salary increases awarded based on performance;
  • Higher starting salaries for new teachers;
  • Increased local control through student-based budgeting;
  • Enhanced choice through investments in GT and SPED programs;
  • Equalized funding for public charter school students.

The candidates running—as “The Clean Slate”—all support the recall and all have received the endorsement of JCEA, the Jeffco teachers union. This is the same JCEA whose president was quoted last November declaring the recall a “unique opportunity to beat the bas----s back.” 

We hear recall supporters say they feel like they have lost control of the board to a political agenda and “outside” money. Do they think there was no agenda before this board was elected, or do they really mean to say there is now a different agenda? 

I want an agenda that focuses on raising student achievement, from the superintendent, to the local school accountability committee, down to the individual teacher who is recognized and rewarded for outstanding work.

I want an agenda that brings more transparency through easier board meeting access and asking the district administration for better, more detailed information on how our students are achieving. 

I want an agenda that brings attention to the needs of every individual student, works to provide increased flexibility in each classroom, along with less testing and more data privacy. 

Whom do I want in control? Parents and families. But the more important question is: Whom do you want in control?