JeffCo superintendent threatens to discipline protesting teachers

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Photo: Students protest (AP Photo)
Students protest against a Jefferson County School Board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history, in front of their school, Jefferson High, in the Denver suburb of Edgewater, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. The Jefferson County School District says classes had to be canceled at Golden and Jefferson high schools on Monday because so many teachers called in sick.

Jefferson County Superintendent Dan McMinimee says teachers who called in sick on Monday in protest over a school board proposal may face disciplinary action.

Two high schools, Golden and Jefferson, were closed Monday after about three-quarters of the teaching staff at both schools called in sick. Students and teachers in the district are upset about a proposed committee that would review texts and curriculum, “according to priorities that it establishes.”

Board member Julie Williams’ initial version of the proposal called for making Advanced Placement history classes more “positive” representations of American history and called for materials to promote "patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

That generated controversy at the last school board meeting and kicked off a firestorm of protest – a week that had students from more than a dozen of the district’s 19 high schools walking out of school.

Teachers are also upset about the actions of the conservative board majority, which swept into office last November.

Superintendent: “I know there’s frustration"

District staff had been working hard all weekend, talking with principals, encouraging them to call teachers individually to avoid the walk-out – but there was a spike in teachers calling in absent after about 10 p.m. Sunday, forcing two schools to close.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to work with teachers, but the place that we we draw the line is where they start taking things away from kids, and clearly today, was taking an opportunity [from] students to have a day of learning,” McMinimee says.

In a press briefing with reporters Monday, McMinimee’s said he wants teachers in class. He says teachers who can't prove they're "sick" or don't follow personal day policies may face discipline, such as being docked a day’s pay. That’s in the collective bargaining agreement with teachers. McMinimee says he’s asked principals sit down with each teacher individually for verification of why they were absent.

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Golden High teachers say they did not make the decision to stay home lightly.

“When some of my colleagues heard that [being docked pay] they said 'fine,' ” says Golden High English teacher Tammie Peters. “If I have to give up my pay for one day to make Jefferson County a better place for our kids, not only for our students but our personal children, it’s worth it.”

McMinimee says kids aren’t learning when they’re not in school and he was also concerned about the kids who rely on free and reduced lunch for food.

“I know there’s frustration out there,” he says. “I’ve felt that since I started in here July. But I think there’s other ways we can [come to a resolution].”

As far how to resolve the divide between teachers and the board majority, McMinimee says he can't force board members to meet with teachers but he says both sides can make different decisions to move forward.

"I think everybody's owns responsibility for where we are right now," he says.

He’s enlisting the support of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers' union, to work with teachers considering walking out.

“I do know that it’s gotten to the point now where it’s affecting students and we need to get kids and teachers back in classrooms,” he says.

Union president slams school board

Jefferson County Education Association President John Ford says teachers are “incredibly” frustrated over a school board majority that is not listening to teachers or parents.

“They created this [turmoil] over nine months of decision making that they’ve done and then to try to create a committee that hurts kids. This is all on the board majority,” he says. “The school board majority does have the power to stop this. They need to stop the secrecy, waste and disrespect for the community and they need to come clean with their agenda and what they’re trying to do.”

Teachers and parents point to a community budget survey last year that showed the two top priorities were free and full-day kindergarten for the neediest students and teacher compensation.

The board majority voted against a $600,000 proposal that would have expanded free full-day kindergarten to more schools.

The board argued it wants to instead examine a different funding mechanism for kindergarten students where dollars flow to the student rather than the attendance boundary in which they live.

Teachers received a pay raise recently, the first time in five years. But they say the new pay system was created behind closed doors and many questions remain about it and how it will be tied to teacher evaluations.

Ford says the teacher’s union has been a collaborative force in Jefferson County for 45 years and now it has no communication with the school board.

Next steps

The school board plans to take up the curriculum review committee issue at its meeting this Thursday, at which public comment on the issue is expected to be passionate.

The most recent draft posted strikes the language about "patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

It also now calls for the district’s chief academic officer to serve as an advisor to the committee.

It says the committee charge is to “review curricular choices for accuracy and omissions” ... and to “inform the the board of materials that may reasonably be deemed to be objectionable. The committee shall regularly review texts and curricula according to priorities that it establishes, although the Board may, from time to time, add items for reviews.”

It says the first item for review is Advanced Placement U.S. history. In the 2012-2013 academic year, 1,297 students in Jefferson County took AP U.S. History.

McMinimee stressed several times Monday that he’d like to see AP History teachers, students, and parents who have had students in the course – sit on the committee.

“We have a great resource that we can use, students that are currently sitting in our classes that took AP history as a sophomore or junior," he says.

He says teachers could give insight into how they take the new AP framework and translate it into what they teach on a daily basis.

It’s unclear whether student protests will continue this week or if more teacher walk-outs are planned. But the Jefferson County PTA is organizing a “Boots on the Boulevard” for community members who are “concerned about what is happening in our school district. Our school board majority is not listening to us,” the PTA’s website reads. It is organizing protests along nearly 30 intersections at Wadsworth Boulevard on Friday afternoon.