Ready to rumble

Will Colorado lawmakers rekindle the bipartisan spirit to take on these education issues?

State Reps. Millie Hammer and Barbara McLachlan, both Democrats, speak during the 2017 special session. (Denver Post File photo)

When state lawmakers ended their regular business in May, leaders under the gold dome congratulated themselves for finding a long list of bipartisan compromises — including deals on some of the most prickly education issues.

Education debates over charter school funding, a diploma credential for students who speak two languages and high school testing that had befuddled lawmakers for years were settled with bipartisan support.

But after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called legislators back to work to fix a glitch in one of those hard-fought compromises, talk of bipartisanship went straight out the window.

Now, on the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor — he’s term-limited — it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

While education lobbyists and other Capitol observers are wary major victories can be achieved, some of education’s most influential lawmakers are sounding a bipartisan tone.

“I’ve loved working with Brittany,” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, referring to state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s an honor to work with someone who challenges my thinking. And yet we always come together to make sure kids have the very best possible education.”

Pettersen echoed Hill’s bipartisan sentiment.

“I know things get complicated during an election year,” she said. “But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and I hope to do it again.”

Here’s a rundown of what should loom large on the education front this legislative session, which opens Wednesday:

Pension reform is going to take up a lot time and headspace, but a resolution is far from certain.

The state’s pension system, known as PERA, is in a precarious situation. While it’s nowhere near the crisis level it was seven years ago, the system’s funding levels have declined. PERA oversees retirement benefits to 566,000 current and former public employees — and many are school district employees.

There are a number of different proposals floating around the legislature. One is from the PERA governing board, another from the governor, one from state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, and another from legislative staff.

If lawmakers do act this session — and that’s a big “if” — they’re likely to want to put their own mark any reforms.

“I can’t imagine anything gets done this session,” said Hill, who is also the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely play a large role in shaping any reform package.

Hill suggested that more time is needed to study the issue and craft the best reform package possible — not the quickest.

Some Senate Democrats are hopeful a compromise can be reached, but are also inclined to take time on overhauling PERA.

“I do think a compromise can be had, but it’s going to take us all session to get it,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “I’m worried if we try to rush something through, it could get too political and it won’t be a good bipartisan solution like we did a few years ago.”

School funding is likely to see a boon — barring any unforeseen surprises.

Unlike last year when school budget writers were bracing for another round of cuts, things are looking pretty rosy on the school funding front. In November, the governor requested an additional $343 per student. That number is likely to go up given that the state has even more revenue than was expected in November and lawmakers love bragging about how much more money they send to schools than the governor requests.

However, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and chair of the legislature’s budget committee, sounded a cautious note.

“Clearly we’re in a much better place,” she said. “But we still have a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns include how state lawmakers plan to improve the state’s roads and highways — a huge piece of unfinished business from the 2017 session — and whether Congress will continue to fund the children’s health care program.

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the state budget to deal with the shortcomings of Congress in regards to that program,” she said.

Don’t expect a massive rewrite of the state’s school funding formula — yet.

One of last year’s bipartisan accomplishments was the formation of a legislative committee to study — and ultimately change — the way Colorado funds its schools. The committee is scheduled to end its first round of meetings Tuesday — with little to show for it.

But that’s by design, several committee members said.

“The common understanding of the challenge is becoming more well-defined,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who co-sponsored the bill that created the committee. “I’m pleased we’re making headway. And for the chance to drag our finance model into the 21st Century, I’m willing to be patient.”

One possible bill that could emerge from the committee’s work is a change to how the state counts its students. Right now, schools receive funding based on how many students are present for school on a specific day in October. Lawmakers could come up with a new system that better tracks student attendance and mobility to send a more precise amount of money to schools.

While some lawmakers are content with taking their time to develop a new formula to fund schools, a group of superintendents is preparing to charge ahead with its proposal.

The group, led in part by Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, has been working with state Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley, to put the proposal into a bill.

Among the changes the superintendents seek: fully fund kindergarten students and increase funding for students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

However, Cooper said the superintendents and Young have not decided whether to introduce the bill.

“We’ll know by January if it sees the light of day,” Cooper said.

A major update to the state’s school accountability law is unlikely. But one lawmaker wants to give struggling schools another option.

Last year Lundeen and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, were working behind the scenes to update the state’s school accountability system. The state education department and leaders of struggling schools had identified where the 2009 law was ambiguous and needed clarification. But the two lawmakers could not get the bill into fighting shape.

“We continue to talk about this,” Lundeen said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have a bill.”

Meanwhile, Zenzinger, the Arvada Democrat, said she will introduce a bill that will give the State Board of Education an additional option for schools that don’t improve test scores within five years.

Currently, the board can order a school to be closed, converted to a charter school, develop an “innovation plan” that would free the school from some local and state policies, or hand over all or some managerial duties to a private third party. Zenzinger wants to include a “community schools model” to the mix.

The model, which is growing in popularity thanks in part to an endorsement by national teachers unions, transforms schools into hubs for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes for parents, medical care, and additional resources for families.

The idea behind the model is that learning can improve by first tackling poverty and other challenges facing students and their families.

“It’s going to offer more resources and a different approach,” Zenzinger said.

Here are a few other storylines and bills to watch for:

  • Taking on the teacher shortage is a top priority for House Democrats on the education committee. And they could have up to $10 million if the budget committee approves Hickenlooper’s request. But they don’t have any specific bills yet. Expect Republicans to push back on any policy that doesn’t alter the status quo — especially on teacher licensing.
  • This could be the year lawmakers send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying a bill that would nearly fully fund kindergarten without spending any more tax dollars. That’s because his bill would reduce some funding for upperclassmen in high school.
  • Look for a big push to expand concurrent enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit at state universities and colleges, from Lundeen and Garnett. If the bill passes, it would be the third year in a row the bipartisan duo score major education legislation. (See data privacy, the committee studying school funding.) However, there’s also concern coming from the budget committee staff that some schools are abusing the “early colleges” model to score extra funding for students and not delivering on the promise of an associate’s degree within six years.
  • Just when you thought the debate over early childhood literacy was over, it’s back. Hamner, the Dillon Democrat, was one of the original sponsors of the READ Act, a bill that reformed how the state catches reading disabilities in its youngest students. She wants to double down on parts of the policy that are working and scrap what isn’t. Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the State Board of Education, also has expressed interest in pushing legislation that aims to boost early literacy. Durham and Hamner have been on opposing sides on a similar issue before. Can the two work together? Hamner says she hopes so.
  • One of last session’s biggest surprises was the death of a bipartisan bill that would have prohibited the state’s public schools from suspending its youngest students in most cases. The bill would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, but it was killed over objections by some of the state’s rural schools. Look for the bill to come back but perhaps with different sponsors in the Senate.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.