Jeffco Schools and the Search for Leadership

Children

I am a parent of two daughters in a Jefferson County elementary school. My wife is a paraprofessional at that school. I substitute teach in Jefferson County Schools on occasion. The nonprofit I lead trains and mobilizes reading tutors to work with K-3rd grade students who struggle in reading.

Though I am not a Jeffco graduate myself (Go Arapahoe Warriors!), I care deeply about Jeffco Schools and want to see all 85,000 children succeed in school and in life.

Since the election of three conservative Board of Education members in November and the early resignation of Superintendent Cindy Stevenson this weekend, things are starting to get interesting.

The divisive climate of politics has become local and it is very hard to stay in the middle. The camps are forming. Either you are supportive of the new board majority or you are not. You are with the unions or you are not.

The sad part is that many of us are in the middle. We don’t think charter schools are the magic antidote for education and we support our neighborhood schools.

But we also think that education is due for some reform. Any organization or company needs to remain on the cutting edge to innovate and keep ahead of a changing culture.

I also believe in education innovation when I look at our Edgewater schools. At our three Edgewater schools, over 90% of the children receive free or reduced lunch because of poverty in their families. Yet when you compare the test scores at these three schools with three schools in southwest Littleton where we used to live, you see a big achievement gap.

This is a moral wrong. Children growing up in poverty have every right to a great education. The achievement gap should not exist yet in reality it does.

We have some great teachers and school leaders here in Edgewater but we can do better. I believe that if we can rally our community around our schools and change the education paradigm, we could see the achievement gap bridged.

Continuing to do things the way we always have done it doesn’t cut it anywhere. My daughters’ friends deserve better. Don’t lower your expectations just because we are poor. Right now a Jefferson (our local high school) graduate is on the Colorado Supreme Court, another is a Congressman and yet another is the bodyguard for Peyton Manning. With a great education, imagine where the next Jefferson High graduate might end up.

So circling back to the events of the weekend, I am frustrated on many levels with what happened. What I am most frustrated with is that the focus is now away from the 85,000 kids in our district. Union members are spreading fear and rumors. The three board members are demonized and any change they bring up is automatically thrown out. And because this new majority is silent on their agenda, then people assume the worst.

Finding common ground is possible. I’ve seen it happen in Jeffco Schools in the last month. I am part of the Choice Enrollment Steering Committee and have seen people from different education philosophies work together for 85,000 kids in the district. We sit down and listen to each other without jumping to conclusions. We have built relationships and stay focused on the task that unites us.

To each of the current Jeffco Board of Education members, I implore you to lead and focus the district on the common good of 85,000 children. To the Board majority, build bridges and start to dialogue in public about your ideas for the district. Board President Ken Witt has already started to do this by appearing on KHOW on February 11 (listen here). To the unions in Jeffco, don’t fall to the level of spreading fear and speculation. To quote the wise Yoda, ““Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

What we need right now in Jefferson County Schools is a leader.

Someone to unite our community around the common good of 85,000 children with hopes and dreams.

At this point that leader needs to be one of you sitting on the Board of Education.

Ken Witt. Julie Williams. Lesley Dahlkemper. John Newkirk. Jill Fellman.

Which one of you will step up and lead?

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About joelnewton

I am a husband to Hillary, a father to Anna and Norah

Posted on February 9, 2014, in Education Reform, Personal, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. For the most part I agree with you, but you’re oversimplifying some issues. For example:

    “The three board members are demonized and any change they bring up is automatically thrown out. And because this new majority is silent on their agenda, then people assume the worst.”

    Explain that. How is any change they bring up “thrown out,” considering that they are the majority and seem to be voting in (or out) whatever they want. Clearly, their ideas are not being thrown out. Perhaps you mean that their decisions are being rejected by some in the community? That may be true, but this statement is generally too all-encompassing to be accurate.

    In addition, the fact that the three have consistently refused to answer questions, refused to have public dialogues, give evasive answers on the few occasions they deign to answer questions, and to top it off, pay their own special attorney to play word games when asked about a very serious issue, does them no favors. (Stating that Dr. Stevenson wouldn’t be fired when they were working very hard behind the scenes to insist she leave on their terms; Witt’s latest statement that she’ll be placed on administrative leave for her last week in Jeffco is pretty good evidence of this. True, she wasn’t technically “fired,” but Miller’s statement was deliberately misleading, and for no purpose.)

    People would have been angry yesterday no matter what, but Witt could have chosen to also make a statement saying something about irreconcilable differences and wanting to clean the slate and move on as quickly as possible (or whatever his reason was, since none of the three have felt it necessary to explain themselves to anyone). Whether their refusal stems from the fact that someone else is operating their puppet strings and they haven’t been authorized to stray from their script (not saying this is the case, but one wonders), or because they don’t have a good reason other than this is the decision they’ve decided to make now, or because they simply don’t feel they need to condescend to the level of explaining themselves to silly little taxpayers like us is not clear. Maybe there’s another reason. They’re not talking. We have no way of knowing. I hold them responsible for the rumors because anyone with any sense knows that’s what happens when you don’t talk.

    Even more unfortunately, while I had heard a rumor that the board planned to get rid of Stevenson last week, it was so incredible that I didn’t believe it. I’ve tried very hard to give these three the benefit of the doubt, to try to believe that although our opinions of what is good for children are very different, that they also believe they are working to do that. The events of the last three days have used up that doubt. My third-grader and my younger child who starts kindergarten in a year and a half do not benefit from this circus, and no reason whatsoever has been given for their urgency in pushing Stevenson out or refusing to work with Fellman and Dahlkemper to name an interim.

    Worst of all, they are insisting on policy changes that would allow them to walk the halls of my daughter’s elementary school without supervision. I am not comfortable with that, at all. I’m not comfortable with the fact that any one of them could encounter my daughter in the hallway, perhaps returning from the bathroom, and have a conversation with her without a responsible adult there to supervise. I don’t know if any of the three have even had a background check, and while I don’t want to suggest that any of them could be a danger to my child, the reality is that we’ve had previous Jeffco board members who have broken the law, and it can’t be ruled out. In addition, I haven’t given them permission to talk to my child. As a parent, I have that right, and they’re ignoring it for their own political ends. (This is a stance I have for anyone, whether or not I voted for them in the election. Parents who volunteer in the schools, after all, have to state what they’ll be doing and where they’ll be. We don’t get to walk the halls indiscriminately, nor should we!)

    I don’t expect to agree with many of the decisions that the three make, but my biggest objection is their unwillingness to be honest with their public. They are well within their rights to hire their own attorney, but the way in which they did it was very, very wrong. Thompson just hired the same attorney and while they also have many unhappy families, they did it within the law.

    Here, Witt refused to answer questions about cost or scope of work, has refused to return to that discussion despite his agreement that this was a month-to-month contract (which suggests to me that it’s a topic that can rightfully be discussed in public any month), and the fact that I have yet to see a letter of engagement posted on the BoardDocs site is shameful and wrong. I spoke to them on this issue during January’s public comment session, and despite their promises to “hear all voices,” mine was clearly ignored. Their treatment of Jane Doughtery and Tom Mauser at the last board meeting was horrible. Witt’s placing an executive session to discuss the superintendent on the agenda despite Dr. Stevenson’s protest that her lawyer couldn’t be present that day (something she and every other Jeffco employee are allowed according to the bylaws), and without bothering to provide information to Fellman and Dahlkemper, is inexcusable.

    They have the majority vote. They can be polite, respectful, and still vote in what they want. There’s no reason for the secrecy, the rudeness, the insinuations, and for breaking the law.

    One last point: please be careful about your assumptions. All too often, people in Jeffco who hear a viewpoint that happens to be similar to a union viewpoint assume that person must be associated with the union. Ditto for rumors. That’s ridiculous. I’ve never been part of a union, no one in my family is connected to a union, and yet I’ve been accused numerous times of being a “union shill.” The fact that I was the only parent at January’s meeting to ask the board to have the public discussion about their lawyer’s pay and scope of work, and to hire the candidate for the Executive Director of Employee Relations has NOTHING to do with the fact that the union represents made the same request. As odd as it may seem to some, I can, as a parent of a current and a future Jeffco student, look at the agenda, note that an item has been pulled off, note that the fact that it was pulled off was suspicious, think about this, and then wonder if it was pulled off so they could vote no and argue that “the new superintendent should do this hire.” Guess what? I was right. That was the argument they made (with no reference whatsoever to my comment a couple of hours earlier). I’d imagine anyone who didn’t agree with me dismissed my comment as being union-affiliated, or that someone from the union put me up to it, but the reality is that I’m intelligent enough to think, analyze, and draw conclusions all by myself.

    In 2012, I was annoyed enough by Laura Boggs’ continued misunderstanding of the laws regarding PERA that I wrote two letters to the editor (both of which were ignored by the Post) and finally marched into the board room to explain why she was wrong during public comment. I wrote about it, I continued to comment about it, and any critical comments I read dismissed me as being part of the union–which I’m not! So let’s be careful with our assumptions. Don’t assume you know anything about anyone or why they’re making that argument until you’ve had a chance to personally communicate with them, please.

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