This is a letter from a teacher in Douglas County, let’s call her Debbie, to teachers here in Jefferson County. Debbie has given her permission to post this.
As you read, see if anything sounds familiar to you.
After four, going on five years of living and dealing with the current school board in Douglas County School District there is a lot to say about how they have impacted the school district in a negative way. In essence they have changed and made decisions that impact parents, students, teachers, and administrators in a variety of ways. Their decisions, some legal and some not legal have changed the very culture of our schools and the lives of those who attend and work in our schools. It would be impossible to list all of the changes in a short letter, so I will do my best to address the larger issues starting with the district level administration, then the school level administration and teachers, then lastly parents and students.
A little history is necessary in order to fully understand the gravity of the situation occurring in Douglas County Schools. A little over 6 years ago Douglas County was a thriving school district, that served its community members in a positive and inviting culture, that encouraged learning and growth. When the recession finally hit the school district in 2008, the schools and the district as a whole had no choice but to make some cuts.
All employees in the district went on a pay freeze and their insurance (level and quality of care) were adjusted to help the financial burden that the school district had encountered. The district and the then School Board went to work to put together a Bond and Budget issue to help alleviate the financial stress that was occurring. The Superintendent, Jim Christenson, then stepped down and a new school board was voted in.
The individuals that won the school board election ran together and were not only backed by the Douglas County GOP, but received financial backing in hopes that they would take over the school board and they did. Once they were elected the unraveling began. It started with the failure of the Bond and Budget, which they barely supported. Then they went to work on hiring a new Superintendent for the district, which led to the hiring of Dr. Elizabeth Celinas Fagan. Once she was hired the entire culture of the district changed. Not to be dramatic, but a dark cloud moved over Douglas County and never left….I have heard countless people say “well it can’t be that bad,” and I can tell you it is worse and here is the proof.
Once Dr. Fagan took the helm she brought in a CFO by the name of Bonnie Betz, together they almost completely destroyed Tuscon Unified School District financially, all you have to do is look and you will find evidence of the damage they left behind in Arizona. Here these two in conjunction with the GOP backed school district have implemented a series of changes that is continuously impacting the quality of Douglas County Schools.
The first large change the new super and board made was an effort to implement a voucher program “School Choice Scholarship” Program. In an effort to make it sound like a legit program they formed a fake charter school, I call it fake because no one would actually attend the school. Parents and students would enter a lottery and if selected, their student would enroll in the charter school, where the district would then turn around and give that family 3/4 of their students per pupil finding to take to any school in Douglas County to attend, specifically private schools. The parents would be able to use public tax dollars to pay for private schooling for their students.
I know that some people hear this and believe “that is a great deal!” but it is not. First and foremost it is against the Colorado State Constitution but also it is unethical! Not to mention that the money is per pupil funding, so because those students are not actually attending a Douglas County School, Douglas County should not get per pupil funding for those students. Tax payer money is supposed to be used for public schools. Schools where they are accountable to the tax payers for how that money is spent, how those students are performing and what those students are learning.
The ACLU filed an injunction and the students were sent back to their public schools, the money returned. While the ACLU and Plaintiffs won the first battle in court, it went to the next level where the district won, because of the injunction those students are still in public school today, due to the appeals process and it was just announced this week that the Colorado State of Appeals court has agreed to the hear the case. I guess more than anything I question the ethics of a school board suggesting that other schools outside of their district will have more success educating their students than they will. Isn’t it their job to educate all of their students? And shouldn’t they be using their money to make sure that Douglas County Schools have programs that benefit them?
The second issue the current school board and Fagan created was the treatment of teachers and building level admin. This started with the much publicized open negotiations with the Union and the end result of the School Board claiming that the Union would not work with them. This is not a whole truth by any means. The school board and their negotiations team consistently “moved the goal post.” they moved it so much that every time the union would move on an issue the district or the school board would change it again. During negotiations the complete disregard and care for others became completely apparent. Teachers came in droves to the one open negotiations session and watched as their colleagues were berated and insulted by the Districts members of the negotiations team. There were insults and flat out twisting of words throughout the entire session, teachers from across the district left heart broken and undervalued. At the end of the day the teachers lost their Collaborative Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and were forced to sign contracts with the district regardless, if they wanted to keep their jobs. This loss was the beginning of the mass exodus. Teachers began leaving as quickly as they could and for good reason. They no longer had a voice in their careers. Administrator’s voice followed shortly after and I will get to all that more in a little bit.
The next huge hit that teachers took was the introduction of yet another evaluation tool, while I will own that some of that is due to SB 191, most if not all of the issue in Douglas County is around the subjectivity of the new elevation system. There are a total of 6 standards that read like a 3 year law student’s books. The words are ambiguous and the content unclear, no one is quite sure what they are actually looking for in their evaluation tool. The documentation to successfully navigate through this has never been provided, no exemplars, no map to teachers about how to be successful, and the method by which teachers submit their documentation for the evaluation has changed 3 times in 2 years. However the impact of not successfully navigating through their evaluation tool is catastrophic, especially for teachers who are new to the district. Receiving a rating below effective can be grounds for dismissal and non-renewal. While I don’t believe that bad teachers should remain employed I do believe that teachers who are not meeting requirements should know and understand what they are not meeting. I also believe that if a teacher is not meeting expectations the district should have a plans and program to better educate and train the teachers, rather than just throwing them away.
Teachers who have been in the district more than 3 years (right now, but this will change too with SB191) have some support and there is a plan in place (because it is required by law), but to what extent will the district actually support these teachers they feel need more help to be a good or effective teacher? Some teachers with non-probationary status will be “downsized” this year and when the district started this process, this March, the district asked those teachers to sign a separation agreement. This agreement stated that that employee intended to sever its relationship with Douglas County.
Unfortunately, I am sure that many teachers were not aware at the time they were presented this document that they had legal rights that were not shared with them. These teachers have a legal right to be placed in another opening, to continue their employment with Douglas County for one more year regardless of whether or not they are assigned a position and to work as a substitute teacher for a year if they are not assigned a position. They would be paid their salary. Signing this document could potentially prevent them from those possibilities, sadly the district does not seem to care about these employees or their legal rights. All the while the district made the decision to pay its district level admin out for their unused sick and personal leave, some individuals collected upwards of $15,000.00.
In addition to the new evaluation system, the school board made the decision to eliminate the teacher’s sick bank. This piece had been protected for years by the CBA and now that there is no CBA the school board made the decision, with no input from teachers, to get rid of the program and do so without compensation to teachers for the days that they had donated during their employment with Douglas County. The district implemented a short-term disability program for teachers instead. Their reasoning is that the district had not funded the sick bank and it could not sustain itself. I wonder what happened to all the money that should have gone to those sick days? The current short-term disability program pays for teachers who go on leave at 50% and teachers now have the option to pay an additional amount out of their paychecks to receive approximately 75% of their pay. Hundreds of teachers had counted on those sick days, in the bank and the ones they had personally saved up, for maternity leave or if something catastrophic occurred. There is currently a law suit about this exact issue, but with the current board in place it will take years to be resolved.
Pay for Performance was the districts next venture. This program has quite frankly been the most devastating to teachers in Douglas County. The school district essentially forced teachers to join the Pay for Performance program, even after stating that teachers who were on the salary schedule would be grandfathered in. This program divides pay by content and grade level, there is not longer any benefit to continuing education for teachers or years of experience. In a nut shell the pay bands divide teachers into sections by what they teacher and what grade level they teach it to. As Brian Caesare, Director of Human Resources for Douglas County Schools said “the teachers who actually had to work in college are towards the top and it goes down from there.” While some from a business background may wonder what the issue is with this type of a program, those with educational experience and a history of working in a school will know that this is catastrophic to the profession as a whole. Teachers who have been teaching for 10 years are now being paid higher than their band allows and will never receive a raise, or at least one that is substantial enough to encourage them to continue to work hard.
Teachers feel defeated before they even start, “my worth as teacher has been dictated to me and my salary will never grow at the age of 35 I have maxed out.” a direct quote from a teacher in Douglas County. Pay for Performance is also tied directly to the evaluation system in that teacher’s raises are based solely on their evaluation classification and any teachers who receive a rating that would cause them to “go over” their pay band salary cap are given a lump sum to satisfy their salary and increase.
Here in lies another issue, teachers are constantly earning a pension through PERA and when a teacher eventually retires the amount they receive from their pension is based on their 3 highest salary years. The lump sum these teachers receive is not an ongoing sum, so teachers are not able to apply that money to a growing annual income, thus ultimately affecting their retirement. The district has also stated many times that not all teachers can be highly effective, while they have never gone so far as to state a percentage of teachers that “can be highly effective” they have changed teachers rating status. Last year at Trailblazer Elementary the teachers underwent a re-evaluation with a panel set up by the district where each teacher had to go back and prove their “highly effective” status. Many teachers saw their status lowered, because a blind panel that never saw them in the classroom determined that they were not “highly effective,” and yet again there was a mass exodus of teachers and administrators.
Which brings us to the financials of Douglas County schools. This piece has been a huge contention amongst teachers and parents more than any other, because it affects the students more than any other issue. The current school board has toted transparency as their motto, yet they continue to spend and “find” money. The district has focused its budget on supporting and building charter schools. Several have been built, staffed and populated since they took over, while neighborhood schools have struggled to maintain their buildings and internet bandwidth.
The district spent money to pay for and distribute a piece of propaganda that promoted the current school board and the candidates for the open seats on the school board last fall. The district was actually found guilty of violating the Fair Campaigns Act, and yet Fagan remains employed by the district.
In addition, the district has continued to allow their unassigned funds budget to grow to alarmingly high levels. The district also totes a local control approach to funding schools, unfortunately it is just an underfunded local control approach. This underfunded local control has had a huge impact on schools. Classroom size at most schools has gone up, and any reprieve in the class numbers comes directly from Principals huge efforts and cuts in other areas to ensure that class sizes are as low as possible.
One of these efforts has reared its ugly head in the high schools and is called a 6 of 8 class schedule. Most of us would not know what a 5 of 7 or a 6 of 8 class schedule means to a high school, but if you ask in Douglas County most parents and students will tell you and the teachers will scream what it means.
In a 6 of 8 schedule students are able to have, actually encouraged to have “off periods.” Essentially each teacher teaches an extra class with the perception that this will lower class sizes, but in actuality students also have less instructional time and less time in the classroom. Students can and do have up to 90 minutes off at a time during a school day and even longer if it is attached to a lunch period. This schedule not only leaves a ton of time for students to be out doing things, but also adds a ton of work for teachers.
It allows for a school to have fewer teachers, but also increases class load for teachers and means more work with the already precious few moments of planning. For parents the concern should be that their student has multiple hours of the day where they are not in class and they are not supervised. At many schools I have heard stories of students who are even encouraged to leave school grounds because there is no where for them to be and study in the school.
The financial situation continues to deteriorate when looking at the priorities of the school district as a whole. This last year the district spent an upwards of $12,000.00 to bring a speaker, Marc Prensky, a speaker who talked to teachers about how being able to read was no longer important because we have technology that can read to us, as speaker who told an entire room of teachers that they were past-u-cators and and they needed to become future-cators.
The district has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reformatting their website TWICE, hired on a new Communications Department with salaries in the $100,000.00 range, and they just recently announced that they felt they needed to hire on a community relations firm. The district has thrown thousands of dollars into commercials bragging about how great they are, all the while classroom sizes are enormous, teachers are overworked and underpaid, currently the maximum teacher ratio is 180/1 during a school day and the counselors are well over 300/1. But the district continues to throw money every direction they can but the neighborhood school classroom and teacher.
Which leads us to culture. The culture of Douglas County Schools feels a bit like being in a refugee camp. The teachers of Douglas County have had practically no say in any of the changes that are happening in their school district. The district will tell you that they have opened the door to teachers and would love their input. What they won’t tell you is that when teachers are invited to be a part of the puzzle they are told what it will look like and how it will be. Teachers have signed up in good faith to be a part of the solution and their good work is constantly altered and ignored by high-ups who think they know better. The District will tell you they value teachers, but when teachers have shared their thoughts or unhappiness they have been told to “get on board or get out.” Some teachers who have spoken their minds and shared freely of their unhappiness have been told to leave. Others have learned to keep their head down and look for new work, more have simply waited it out until retirement.
Parents have spoken on behalf of their students and their students’ teachers and been told “point blank” that they don’t know what they are talking about. Parents have spoken relentlessly at board meetings asking for the board to meet in the middle, to understand their needs. Their response is SILENCE! The school board has scolded parents for speaking, for caring about their student’s school experience, for caring about their students’ teachers. School board members have lashed out at community members, at times the school board meetings seem a short distance from becoming something similar to a Jerry Springer Show, the school board members being the guests.
If that is not enough the school board and the district have also stopped supporting or caring about their teachers in a long term sense. They have removed things like longevity pay and severance when they retire. More importantly in the last few years the number of teachers who have had accusations made about them have increased and it is the manner in which the district has chosen to handle these situations that is truly concerning. Teachers who have accusations made against them, no matter how tedious are instantly put on leave, and then after an investigation the district decides whether to bring them back or not. While this seems normal, this is the part that is not. The teacher is rarely given an opportunity to know what even happened or what they were accused of, not even in a general sense. Then if the teacher is found innocent the teacher is simply expected to return to the classroom. No information given, no restitution. In fact, most teachers are encouraged to not come back. I know of at least one who was told he would have to resign anyway, after being found innocent of all charges, and he retired in good standing. Others have become deflated and so hurt that it is difficult to know how to continue, especially when they feel they will never be supported by a district they have dedicated their lives too.
All of this, accompanied by the fact that teachers are incredibly over-worked and over paper-worked, and under-equipped in the classroom, yet the stakes rise more and more every day. Our students demand more and more of our time, mental health needs are at record highs, a need for social instruction continues to sore, and the emphasis on testing and more testing will eventually lead any teacher in Douglas County out the door. At the end of the day it is the cruel and thoughtless behavior of the Douglas County School Board that has led us to this point and the teachers have no voice, no ability to speak for what they need or how they would like to be treated that has damaged the relationship beyond repair. Administrators have done their best to protect those that they can, while maintaining their own employment and supporting our students. There is only so much they can do. Douglas County Schools will continue to loose their best teachers in the years to come if change does not occur and Jefferson County Schools will follow right along if the parents do not act soon and act loudly.
For our School Board, this is not about what is best for all of our children but the game of politics. Getting rid of unions is a political motive not what is in the best interest of the students. I have yet to see a strike or the demand for a raise when the district was in a situation where it could not give teachers a raise. Did the teachers or the unions make any demands? I believe the teachers as well as your superintendent did not take a raise. (Ed Note: This is true plus teachers took a 3% pay decrease, voluntarily, for 2 years. Cindy Stevenson took the same 3% cut and refused any earned bonuses, a decrease in her salary of about 17% total.) That could not be said of the Douglas county Superintendent.
My question is where does the big business of the Daniels Fund get the right to tell us what is best for our kids. They have no business putting their politics here. We are a diverse county and WE decide what is best for our children. You do not take advantage of parents who work two jobs and have very little precious time to put in candidates who are not looking out for the majority but the minority. You lost a home grown superintendent who absolutely loved this district. She taught there, was a principal, area superintendent and finally proved herself to be the best for the county. That is hard to find anywhere. Now you will get a superintendent who will be nothing but a puppet to the current board as they are puppets to the Daniel’s fund. Why else would they be there?
The only way the district will stay on the path of excellent education is if you recall this board and reinstate Cindy or at least find someone who cares for the whole entire district.