Another Analysis from Ph.D. Dad

There are many individuals in our community paying attention. Many are upset by the anonymous social media pages and the letters and writings that occur giving false information and accusations.

Our friend, who we call Ph.D. Dad, has another response to more misinformation written on YourHub. YourHub is a platform from the Denver Post that allows anyone to post anything at any time, without citing facts. Anyone can put information out and it doesn’t have to be true. The following response and analysis is provided following this YourHub posting,

A recent public posting offers a chance to thoughtfully consider the arguments raised against both 3A, 3B, and the current school board of Jefferson County.

Reading thoughtfully we can clear away the misleading points and clarify what is the true and important discussion that we must have as we look forward to another request for a mill levy override and the passage of a bond.

As I write this the next meeting of the school board has not yet taken place; this is the meeting at which the recommendations of the staff will be considered; some of these recommendations, such as the decision to close schools, require the consent of the school board and others the staff may implement on its own. Along with the recommendations of the staff, the school board created a budget simulation, received feedback in the form of letters, and has and will allow for public comment; as well, various community groups are meeting to make the case for keeping key and unique programs and for keeping some schools open.

Unfortunately, the time for consideration is shorter than all of us would like because of the timing of the failure of the mill levy override and the bond request coupled with the need to develop a balanced budget for the coming school year.

One of the key goals of the school board is to increase compensation for teachers. The argument is that experienced teachers have left the district in record numbers in recent years because of the pay differential between Jefferson County Schools and surrounding school districts (in additions, some actions by the previous board factored into individual decisions).

Keeping experienced teachers is key to increased achievement as experienced teachers are the ones in the best position to work with students. It is incorrect, then, to claim that there is a disconnect between increasing compensation and increasing achievement—the two are in fact deeply connected with one another.

But, another reason for cutting the budget comes from the need to balance the budget in the light of a decrease in state funding (both over the past nine years and for the coming years), which involves the complexity of the Gallagher Amendment (which requires that if individual tax receipts exceed a certain percentage of business tax receipts, then the individuals will receive a tax refund—this directly impacts the school district because contrarily, the increase in homes and home prices within the district actually leads to less money for schools (noting that school taxes are redistributed across all school districts—only specific mill levy overrides and bond issues go to the districts which have passed them).

So while the school board has made raising compensation a priority, it is not the only reason for the cuts that are on the table. The author of the public posting makes a number of claims that are worth considering and clearing away to see the real and important debate.

The author chooses to use slanted language when discussing a recent board meeting; the author chooses the word “blame” in connection with a discussion of the reasons for the need to make cuts; the author also uses the phrase “voters (sic) fault”.

Instead, the school board and staff were saying this: the most recent cause for the need to discuss budget cuts is the failure of voters to support 3A and 3B—there’s nothing about “blame” here, simply a recounting of the facts; discussing this cause does not preclude looking at contributing causes, such as ways in which better explanation of 3A and 3B could have been made to voters.

The author also alleges that the community was “surprised” and presented with a plan that “changed”. Context is important here as is the timeline. The new school board takes office just before the winter break; they know that there is a need for some kind of mill levy override and bond request (as the prior school board had also known), but do not know how much is needed: the staff needs to present them with the information, they need to wait until tax receipts are in, they need to wait until the state has completed its budget process, and they need time for discussion.

Noting when these things occur, we are quickly at May before many of the key facts are known; the school board then also faces a deadline for placing 3A and 3B on the ballot; finally, as more information comes in, the ballot measures are refined.

Looking at the context we can see how the timing of events came about (which is not to say that things could not have been done better). The author also chooses to bundle the two measures together along with the interest payments to arrive at the figure of “a billion” (which is also a favorite figure used to, misleadingly, describe the overall school district budget).

First, we should recognize that a mill levy override—a community agreeing to increase its tax rate so that more money can go to the district, is different from a bond request, the latter of which is directed toward facilities (improvements, modifications, new construction, etc.)

The requested mill levy override was for $33 Million dollars per year—that is property owners in Jefferson County would agree to a small percentage increase in the amount of school taxes they pay and from the county overall, this overall amount would be collected for specific use by Jefferson County schools; the text of the measure is relatively specific: teacher salaries, security, and instruction (so two of the three being directly related to student achievement).

The requested bond amount would raise individual taxes so that the county overall would contribute $72.6 million per year for repairs, upgrades, and new construction—again, this money would be specific to Jefferson County; this bond would have a time limit cap.

The author then connects the discussion of 3A and 3B to the recall of three members of the previous school board and to the role the “union” played in this recall. And, that the fact of the union paying for the recall broke the “trust” of the community.

There is also the charge that the “Jeffco Union” (I’m not sure what this means) teaches their skills to others (one is reminded here of the charge against Socrates “he teaches these things to others”). It’s clearly true that money for the recall came from several sources, including that from unions of teachers; it’s also true that money was raised locally and that the initial organization for the recall was a bipartisan community effort that led to the recall of three members of the school board with support from voters across the political spectrum (Jefferson County, I note, is a nearly perfect political sounding board with roughly 33% registered Democrats, 33% registered Independents, and 33% registered Republicans—for any measure to pass, there must be broad support).

There is also the charge that the school board thought it could “ram” through a mill levy increase and a bond measure, but in what sense of “ram” through? The school board has no ability to make people vote a particular way and we’re already noted the issue of timing. There’s also an implicit assumption that if a union supports a measure, that the measure is necessarily bad or “deceptive”—this seems to be key to the author’s position.

The question the author does not ask is why the union (local and national), and remember a union is just a group of individuals— teachers in the district, among others, supported the recall of the three school board members.

Like any group of people, we can imagine that the reasons are various: the hasty implementation of an untried assessment method linked to merit pay increases, a decision to increase starting pay for teachers while limiting pay increases for experienced teachers (with a consequent departure of those teachers), the inability to distinguish a common core standard from a teaching process of achieving that standard (and attacking this measurement of outcome at the same time as simplicity relying on it for merit pay), and….

The real discussion, then, would be over whether the recall was warranted—that’s a large discussion, but 65% percent of the individuals who voted believed it was warranted. And, we’ll give these voters the benefit of the doubt: they are thoughtful and not easily deceived—we assume that they carefully weighed the actions of the board members and then made their decision.

The mill levy override request and bond request were very specific in their language (might it have been improved, of course, there are always ways to do this): money was devoted to repairing and updating schools, but not the entire amount of the bond (so it’s not clear why the author argues that only a certain amount of money was going to this category). But the deeper confusion involves seats, capacity, and sixth graders. Let’s begin with the claim of “15,000” empty seats. And, let’s begin with a thought experiment. We imagine that the author of the recent public posting has children; if we told you that every day the author exposes these children to temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees (F), a temperature capable of violently and painfully killing said children, and that the author also exposes children to numbers violent explosions, also capable of killing, you might be reaching for your phone to call social services or the police.

But, pause, and place this information in context: we are describing the temperature in a car engine and the operation of that engine. Likewise, and this has been discussed in depth elsewhere, the 15,000 (it’s actually less than this) empty seats need to be placed in context: where are they, what grades are they in, how are shifting populations affecting the distribution, what about social factors that led people to delay having children, what are the long term projections, etc.).

There’s a muddle, too, about sixth grade. We should note first that sixth grade being a part of middle school is common within the district (that’s not an argument, simply a statement of fact). The new members of the school board did not campaign on this issue (which was being explored by the previous board) because they had not made a decision about this; likewise, when discussing this move prior to the failure of 3B, they were focused on one set of reasons, and post failure of 3B a new set of reasons (these should not be conflated as the author confusingly does).

In the first case the recommendation to the school board stemmed from the over capacity within some elementary schools and the open seats in some middle schools; thus, a cost effective way to relieve over crowding in elementary schools and to make use of open seats in middle schools, was to shift sixth grade to middle school (in places where this is not already the case).

There is, of course, still a discussion to be had about the effect of such a move on schools and on education—the experts seem divided on whether such a move is good pedagogically, but this discussion has been held in the district in the past and in great depth. After the failure of 3B, a new set of reasons has come into play: the need to save money (linked to many factors), with one way of doing this being the closing of some schools and the shifting of students in sixth grade to middle schools. The reasoning now, then, is somewhat different. And, thus, voting for 3B would not have been linked to the closing of schools (rather one foci of 3B was the repairing of the older schools, now the ones under discussion for closing), but would instead have led to the retention of those schools.

There was, contrary to the author’s claim, discussion of autism centers and the impact on Title 1 students—though these are broader discussions within the district and not connected simply to the movement of sixth grade to middle school.

The author returns to the theme of time, seemingly accusing the school board of some kind of plan to limit discussion; we’ve looked at the time line of events, most if not all of the factors of which are outside the control of the school board (as is also the amount the legislature requires that the school board contribute to PERA—note required by the legislature—not a choice of the school board).

The author laments the amount of time available and that it was during the summer; yet, while the time was limited (for reasons noted), nothing precluded individuals from holding conversations and presenting feedback, even within a limited space of time. Ideally, more time would have been available, but if the measures were to be placed on the November 2016 ballot, then things had to be done as they were (again, noting that improvements are possible).

We hope that one lesson learned, as the school board moves forward with, we hope, a new mill levy override request and a new bond request, that more time is available for discussion (if, for example, we are looking at 2017 or 2018, then discussion could begin now; we’d suggest intentional responses to misinformation and holding debates and information sessions multiple times and at multiple locations throughout the district—including schools, libraries, community meetings, with civic organizations, etc.).

The author again charges the board with issues of time and promises broken without, again, taking context into account. The school board would have, ideally, spent more time discussing the movement of sixth graders to middle schools, but the failure of 3B has eliminated much of that time; likewise, the staff only presented recommendations in January and the board needs to make a decision very soon so as to balance the budget before the end of the fiscal year and to plan for the changes that are approved.

Looking at the time line, we can see, how, unfortunately, discussion has been compressed, but this is certainly no plot by the current school board.

Finally, the author contends that the cuts are all unnecessary as the district has funds in reserve. Strictly speaking, this is true, but the district has mandatory rules on keeping funds in reserve and along with that financial best practices for the amount that is kept in reserve (and we should remember that financial standing factors into bond ratings, which effects interest rates). So, while it looks like there is $78 million available, this is, in fact, an illusion.

The public posting by the author offers an important opportunity to clear away the obfuscation and so lastly we turn to noting some of the issues at hand (the mystical and mythical $1 billion budget will have to wait for another occasion):

  1. What is the best way to increase student achievement and what role do factors such as teacher expertise, facilities, and support play in increasing achievement (which is already high in many areas of the district, but improvement is always possible)? What other factors outside the direct control of the school district play a role and what might be done to address these?
  2. Given that budget cuts must be made this year and if indications are correct, next year, what cuts should be made? How should we weigh the value of a school that is high performing with a dedicated group of parents against the age of that school and the high cost of upkeep (not improvement, but simple upkeep)? What is the value of a unique GT Center and how do we weigh that against other needs, such as increasing teacher compensation to keep experienced teachers within the district and thereby affect student achievement?
  3. How might we begin discussions now for budget cuts in later years and also for the crafting of a new mill override request and a bond request?
  4. But, more generally, when we have to make cuts what should guide those decisions—what values and priorities? And, when we request mill overrides and bonds, how should we write the text and what specifically should we ask for, not simply in terms of dollar amounts, but in terms of how that money will be spent?

In the end, what do we as a community value?