Denver schools declare early victory

Updated at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Denver school leaders aren’t going to waste too much time celebrating voter approval of a bond issue and property tax measure that will bring a record $515 million into district coffers.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talked Tuesday night with reporters about the district’s successful passage of a $466 million bond issue and a $49 million operating tax increase. Photo / Joe Mahoney

Wednesday, school board President Mary Seawell said work would begin soon to set up the two oversight committees charged with evaluating projects and programs to be funded via the $466 million bond issue and $49 million operating tax increase.

Seawell said each board member will be asked to come up with candidates for the committees, as will Superintendent Tom Boasberg, and a notice will be put out to the community at large to gauge interest.

The school board will then hash out names in a work session. Under language already approved by the board, consensus must be reached on the committee make-up. With a board that often splits 4-3 on key votes, consensus could take some time.

“The plan is to put applications out and post them and see who’s interested,” Seawell said.

Seawell said the board would likely vote on the committee memberships at its regular Dec. 20 meeting. Michael Kiley, a DPS parent and critic of the bond, has said he hoped a range of opinions would be reflected on each oversight committee.

Kiley added that he believed the bond would fund some important projects and “for that, I’m happy.”  Seawell said those building projects will be underway soon and shovels could be hitting dirt as early as January.

“We have projects that need to start immediately in order for them to be open and ready,” she said. “It’ll be fast.”

While the economic climate isn’t what it was a few years ago, she said the district can still take advantage of lower construction costs on building projects.

Backers of the two ballot questions celebrated early Tuesday evening. That’s because Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Seawell and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock declared victory in the basement of the Irish Snug on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver just after the polls closed at 7 p.m.

“This is absolutely tremendous,” Boasberg said. “Every kid in this city wakes up tomorrow morning with a brighter future as a result of these measures.”

Seawell acknowledged the combined $515 million tax package “was a big ask.”

“The voters came through in a big way to say this matters to our city,” she said. “We know now some of the things that really work for education. 3A is going to support those initiatives, 3B makes sure we have the right facilities and schools to do that work in.”

While leaders in the aging urban district said it needed new buildings and boilers and more money for programs to make up for a string of state budget cuts coupled with growing enrollment, the package known as 3A and 3B wasn’t necessarily an easy sell.

For one, voters were still reeling from economic uncertainty, the likes of which made it tough for Colorado districts to convince voters to pony up during the presidential election four years ago. Only half the bond issues placed on Colorado ballots in 2008 passed. But Denver bucked that trend four years ago, with voters approving a then record-setting $454 Denver Public Schools bond measure by 2-to-1 margin. The question was, would they do it again?

For four voters interviewed near the closing hour Tuesday at a downtown polling place, St. John’s Cathedral, the answer was ‘yes.’

Deanne Stokes, 73, said her daughter once taught in Denver Public Schools and she believes “the schools need it.”

She also said she believes district leaders presented a good plan, noting, “I respect our leadership.”

Zach Buckendahl, 20, voted for the two DPS ballot measures even though he knew little about them before he walked into the polling place.

“I think education is really important,” he said, “but it could also be better.”

Another voter, C. Howard Hall, 57, also voted yes on both measures: “It’s like the old cliché, our children are our future.”

This year, two of seven Denver school board members voted against placing the bond issue on the ballot. And one of those board members, Arturo Jimenez, actively campaigned against it – even putting $500 into the No on 3B campaign, although he said he supported the operating tax increase.

All told, the No on 3B campaign drummed up $1,890 in cash contributions.

Together for Denver’s Schools, the campaign committee supporting the ballot measures, had raised $555,188 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline Nov. 2. Individual donors of note included Denver school board members Jeanne Kaplan at $500, Happy Haynes at $300 and Nate Easley at $200 while Boasberg kicked in $1,000.

Kiley, who spoke publicly against the bond issue, pointed out the preliminary margin of approval for the operating increase was larger than that for the bond.

“Even though the pro side put in almost half a million dollars to support these measures, people were still able to differentiate between the two,” he said.

Property tax bills are expected to increase $5 per month or $62 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value.

Board member Easley called the approval of the ballot measures “a mandate for school reform.”

“The people have spoken,” he said. “I don’t think we need to apologize for school reform anymore.”

Board member Anne Rowe also said, “Denver believes in what we’re doing for kids.”

Meanwhile, board member Haynes said the voting “proves the people of Denver will do what it takes to make our schools the best they can be. It’s not about the politics.”

But Haynes added, “It isn’t a free pass” and the district must now carry through with its spending plans.

Daeja Rossi, a sixth-grader at Denver’s Lake International Academy, a turnaround school. District leaders said passage of its ballot measures would expand a successful math tutoring program to schools such as Lake.

The bond issue is expected to provide $230 million for facility maintenance, $119 million to build six new schools and $78 million to renovate and expand existing schools. The operating tax increase is to provide, among other initiatives, $13 million for early childhood education and $11 million for enrichment programs, such as arts, music, physical education.

Critics complained the bond would not funnel enough money into older district neighborhood schools, even as it built a new high school to serve students in the relatively affluent Stapleton development.

Another steady refrain from opponents was that the district shouldn’t absorb any more debt. Question 3B asked whether DPS’s debt should be increased by $466 million, with a maximum repayment cost of $738 million.

Critics lumped the district’s pension debt with debt that would be accrued by the district if the bond passed. But school officials said the 2012 bond was a separate matter and would be guaranteed – by taxpayers.

“Under state law, voters must approve the full amount of repayment before you can even issue the bonds,” Boasberg said.

Approval of the operating tax increase also means the first cost-of-living increase for Denver teachers in years under an agreement reached in June between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Denver teachers are slated to receive a 1 percent cost-of-living raise retroactive to Sept. 1.

The raise isn’t listed among the tax projects; instead, district leaders say it could be funded because the ballot measure will free up general fund dollars that would have gone to other needs.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.