Who Is In Charge

Superintendent: Waiver best for small district

A tiny Eastern Plains school district is seeking a waiver from one education reform law by invoking the terms of a different reform statute.

The 109-student Kit Carson district wants to be declared an innovation district, allowed under a 2008 law, and as part of that move basically wants to be exempted from the 2010 educator effectiveness law.

Kit Carson School gym
Kit Carson School gym

It’s the first time a district – however small – has requested innovation status, and the application is the first “challenge” to Senate Bill 10-191, the effectiveness measure, a law that isn’t fully in effect and for which regulations haven’t been written.

Because of the unusual nature of the case, the State Board of Education Thursday heard a briefing on the application, even though it won’t be heard formally until next month.

“Today we have an interesting example of competing state and local priorities for all of you to grapple with,” Associate Commissioner Rich Wenning told the board. “The application before you is an important one in terms of the precedent it sets.”

Gerald Keefe, Kit Carson superintendent and a long-time advocate for the special needs of rural districts, pitched his case to the board.

“This is an application that’s rural based … very specific to Kit Carson. … We’re not trying to set a precedent.”

Kit Carson’s innovation application proposes to waive many of the educator evaluation procedures of SB 10-191 and allow the district to give teachers multi-year contracts, change the basis for evaluations and hire non-licensed teachers.

Keefe pointed out the absurdity of applying SB 10-191’s requirement that principal evaluations be based 50 percent on student growth. Noting that he’s both superintendent and principal, Keefe asked, “What’s the school board going to do, fire half of me?”

“This is about the future of the school. … We think it meets the intent of Senate Bill 08-130,” the innovation law.

The district has a single building for its preK-12 student body and about 30 staff members, including 17 teachers.

Some board members expressed skepticism at the idea.

Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, said, “I haven’t heard the innovation” in the plan. She suggested Kit Carson should help pilot implementation of SB 10-191.

“This is an application that works best for Kit Carson R-1 School District. … This works well in rural Colorado,” Keefe said.

The Kit Carson discussion came just a day after the board received a new report on rural districts. Much of that document was in line with Keefe’s overall sentiments.

One part of the study noted, “Superintendents feel that the reform initiatives coming from Denver and Washington, D.C., one after another, have not really addressed the needs or concerns of rural schools. … This churn of new initiatives and reform efforts has lead to considerable frustration and distrust.” Read the report.

School districts of all sizes have become increasingly restive about the flurry of state mandates in recent years, not necessarily with the direction of reform but about the difficulties of implementing new systems without adequate funding and support.

Read Kit Carson’s innovation application here and see comments by CDE officials.

Board acts in Prospect Ridge Academy appeal

Also Thursday, the board voted 5-2 to assert its jurisdiction in a case involving the Prospect Ridge Academy charter school and Adams 12-Five Star district. The school board had unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting Prospect Ridge from developing a proposed site following concerns raised by the Broomfield Zoning Commission. Prospect Ridge Academy appealed to the state board, but Adams 12 claimed the state board does not have jurisdiction over site location issues.

The action sends the issue back to the local school board and probably will return to the state board on appeal. Charter school appeals usually involve differences between only a school board and a charter and don’t involve a third, independent government entity such as a city.

Next steps in commissioner search

The state board Thursday got an update on the hunt for a new education commissioner by the search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea. The consultants told the board they’ve completed their surveys and interviews of education leaders and groups about desired characteristics of a new commissioner.

The board is tentatively scheduled to meet by conference call Monday to try to narrow that list of characteristics so that the consultants have a better of idea of what kinds of candidates to look for.

Read the consultants’ report on their surveys and interviews about what’s needed in a new commissioner.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.