Jeffco school leaders are fiddling while Rome burns

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This year’s self-inflicted budget “crisis” is part of a larger calamity that we’ve seen developing in Jeffco schools since we moved here from Alberta Canada seven years ago. Unfortunately, it is one that district management and boards have been singularly unwilling to face.

The key elements of the strategic challenge facing Jeffco include the following:

First, the certainty of another teacher pension (PERA) funding crisis;

Second, continuing stagnation of student achievement results at time when changes in the economy are raising the bar for true “college and career readiness” at an exponential rate, thus every year leaving more of our kids grossly unprepared for the harsh competitive world they will face after graduation;

Third, the high probability that substantial increases in state K-12 funding will not be forthcoming, because of competing demands from a backlog of infrastructure projects and an explosion in social safety net spending to support the rising number of people who lack the skills needed to succeed in today’s economy;

Fourth, voter resistance to paying higher taxes unless and until governments (and our schools in particular) significantly improve the value they provide; and

Fifth, a strong teachers union and deeply rooted district culture that are both very resistant to change.

Rather than face this fundamental strategic challenge, this year the Jeffco board has supported the teachers union’s demand for a $25 million pay increase, and told district management to identify spending cuts to pay for it.

The justification for this raise is, to put it mildly, highly questionable.

Given that only 32 percent of Jeffco 11th graders met the ACT’s college and career ready benchmarks in 2016, the proposed raise (which will be distributed on the basis of teacher seniority, not results) cannot be a reward for superior performance.

Claims that the pay increase is an incentive are equally vacuous.

Paying poor teachers more money will not make them better.

The assertion that in the absence of higher paid good teachers will flee was dismissed by Amy Webber, Jeffco’s human resources director at a recent board meeting. And despite past turnover, virtually all Jeffco teachers are still rated Effective or Highly Effective (even though the latest data show that 1,416 of them use 10 or more personal and sick days each year, the point at which the US Department of Education says significant negative impacts on student achievement occur).

And no board member wants to admit that this raise will further increase Jeffco’s 1.5 billion dollar unfunded PERA liability – which will one day require either a massive tax increase, large K-12 spending reductions, and/or significant cuts in teachers’ pension benefits.

The spending cuts initially proposed by management to fund the teacher pay increase were also painfully revealing.

They want to eliminate literacy interventionists, even though over 46,000 Jeffco students did not meet grade level English Language Arts standards on the 2016 CMAS assessment.

They propose to severely cut spending on student mental health services, even though this is a top priority in the district’s Unified Improvement Plan.

They propose sharp cuts to programs serving Jeffco’s 11,000 gifted student, even though two thirds of them still fail to reach their full potential and score at the advanced level on achievement tests.

And they wanted to close five schools (since reduced to one), based not on poor achievement results, but on the size of expected cost savings.

Incredibly (or arrogantly, take your pick), Jeffco’s leaders want voters to believe that, in terms of their negative impact on student achievement results, these are the least harmful cuts they can make in a billion-dollar budget! Seriously?

Jeffco’s real crisis is not about its budget; rather, it is fundamentally about the badly broken state of its governance and management processes, and the continuing unwillingness and/or inability of the district’s “leaders” to confront the real and worsening strategic challenge we face.

If a billion-dollar private sector company had such incompetent governance and management it would quickly go bankrupt or be taken over.

Sadly, this is not the case for our public school district, where (at least until the November election) parents and voters can only angrily watch as Jeffco’s “leaders” fiddle while Rome burns.

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