JeffCo School Board Recall: Where The Candidates Stand

Photo: JeffCo School Board debate (Staff)
Candidates for the Jefferson County School Board speak at a debate earlier this month.

By now, you may have heard that there's a hotly contested recall election over Jefferson County's School Board.

But beyond the recall, where do the candidates stand on education issues affecting the district? We chose five questions and compiled the positions of each candidate based on answers that they provided in area debates or answers that they gave CPR News.

A quick recap of the players: Julie Williams, Ken Witt, and John Newkirk are the subject of the recall election. They are the current conservatice school board majority, and their critics dislike how they've handled the district's history curriculum and more.

Candidates Brad Rupert, Ali Lasell, Susan Harmon, Amanda Stevens, and Ron Mitchell are are running as a slate to oust the three recall candidates and fill the two open positions. This, despite the fact that the five are ideologically different.

Five other candidates, Regan Benson, Matthew Dhieux, Kim Johnson, Tori Merritts, and Paula Noonan, are also running.

Would you continue with teachers salary raises based on pay for performance?

Brad Rupert: Supports pay for performance.

“I think it’s perfectly appropriate that people who provide excellent service, provide excellent work, have excellent education and experience get compensated for that performance,” he said at an area debate. However, he says it must be modeled right and it shouldn’t be based on tests or create competition between teachers.

Susan Harmon: Supports pay for performance.

But she questions its implementation and says it needs to be refined and made equitable. “We have gaps,” she said at an area debate. “We have teachers that have been teaching for seven years who just got whacked by this because they had a three-year pay freeze and now they are back four years later without being compensated for that gap. It’s unfair." In addition, Harmon is concerned that teachers who work with challenged students, especially in middle school, will not see the growth that other teachers do. “That is not fair,” she said.

Matthew Dhieux: Does not support pay for performance.

He says there is no assessment model that can consistently and accurately judge a teacher. Pay for performance’s objective is to improve teacher quality and it doesn’t do that “because it doesn’t take into consideration for teachers are not motivated by money alone,” he said at an area debate. Dhieux supports a “track” system similar to that in Oregon school districts that rewards teachers for training, not assessments.

Ali Lasell: "OK" with pay for performance, doesn't believe JeffCo has the right model.

For the past two years, teachers have started the school year without knowing what their salary is, she said at an area debate. “Pay for performance cannot be punitive,” Lasell said. “It cannot pit teachers against each other because the foundation of a good teacher and a good classroom setting is because of teacher collaboration.”

Kim Johnson: Doesn't support JeffCo's current model.

Johnson said at an area debate that the current plan doesn’t differentiate specifically enough between an effective and highly effective teacher and “that’s where some of the competition concerns are centered on.” Johnson says the system has to be collaborative, which she doesn’t believe it is now. She also wants new teachers to be able to move up the pay scale faster.

Amanda Stevens: Doesn't support JeffCo's current model.

She said an an area debate that a pay plan has to be collaboratively built so there is buy in from teachers, and it has to be able to be changed. “I worry deeply that we have a pay plan now that disincentivizes teachers from choosing to work in tough communities and that’s backwards,” Stevens said at an area debate. "I want to make sure we have a compensation and evaluation system that rewards teachers for taking risks that our students need for them to take on for them."

Paula Noonan: Doesn't support JeffCo's current model.

“The compensation system is a mess,” Noonan said at an area debate. “The salary needs to be backfilled [to compensate for years of salary freezes].” Noonan supports a system whereby a school sets goals and objectives and teachers are evaluated against those goals and objectives. She doesn’t support evaluating teachers using standardized tests like PARCC.

Regan Benson: Supports pay for performance, would revisit current model.

“It creates competition and it ensures only the best, highly effective teachers will be working with our students,” she said at an area debate. She is however, in favor of revisiting the current evaluation system to “ensure consistency and fairness and that administration is properly trained so those evaluations are fair and consistent.” She supports employee rights but does not support a teacher contract.

Ron Mitchell: Doesn't support JeffCo's current model.

“I don’t think it’s helping us achieve our goals which are to attract and retain quality teachers and ensure that there’s one in every classroom,” he said at an area debate. He supports creating a joint task force to study what kind of a compensation system would help JeffCo achieve its goals.

John Newkirk: Supports pay for performance.

"I believe performance matters when it comes to our children’s teachers, and I do not believe in giving employees automatic raises with no consideration given to job performance. It’s merit, not seniority that should determine preeminence in the work environment," he told CPR News.

Julie Williams: Supports pay for performance.

"Every child needs a great teacher and we should not compromise on anything less," Williams told CPR News. "We have a great evaluation process that was created by the previous superintendent many years ago and then improved on and voted on by both the teachers union and the district this year. It will be a work in progress. Our teachers that do not make the effective or highly effective rating will receive targeted professional development."

Ken Witt: Supports pay for performance.

"Performance matters," Witt told CPR News. "Our students deserve an effective teacher in every classroom. And to support that goal, we must recognize and reward our great teachers, and provide incentive for those that are not effective to strive to improve, and to encourage all to aspire to achieve recognition as a highly effective teacher."

Tori Merritts: Supports pay for performance.

"Effective teachers need to be rewarded," said Merritts in an area debate. "Pay for performance [for all employees, not just teachers] based on consistent, regular, fair and instructive evaluations, teachers/employees have the opportunity to improve their effectiveness and the district is focused on continuous improvement."

Do you support corporate, for-profit charter schools?

Background: The board majority is currently considering a new charter school, the Doral Academy of Colorado, that is part of a Florida-based for-profit charter management chain.

Ron Mitchell: Doesn't support for-profit charter schools.

However, Mitchell does support “neighborhood” charter schools like JeffCo’s Montessori schools that help meet the needs of all students, he said at an area debate. He would be open to expanding JeffCo’s option schools if the need exists.

Regan Benson: Charter schools are necessary, but so is equitable access.

“There needs to be some board involvement on ensuring equitable access to charters in the same fashion as any traditional neighborhood school with a uniform and unbiased application and lottery process,” she said at an area debate.

Paula Noonan: Doesn't support for-profit charter schools in JeffCo.

Noonan said at an area debate that she prefers that the district implement specialized programming in existing schools and develop a home-grown charter school. “Charters should be locally managed and locally initiated,” she said. Noonan also said the district needs to better distribute charter schools geographically across the district.

Amanda Stevens: Choice is something for families, not for profit or politics.

She said at an area debate that a charter school should meet a need that’s not met yet with existing schools. She says geographic reach is important and the Doral charter will compete directly with a local school that has arts enrichments. “I worry about our schools being in competition with each other instead of supporting kids,” she said at a debate.

Kim Johnson: Supports charter schools in general.

“They are a great opportunity for our parents to find the best education for their students,” she said at an area debate. But Johnson has concerns with a for-profit application like the Doral application.

Ali Lasell: Doesn't support for-profit charter schools, but supports neighborhood charter schools.

“[If] a group of community members said, ‘hey we want this, we need this, and we’ll support this,’" explained Lasell at an area debate. "Those are the kinds of charters I support, not the corporate for-profit charters.”

Matthew Dhieux: Supports charter schools if they serve an unmet need.

“Charter schools need to serve a specific need that is not able to be met in the regular, neighborhood public school,” he said an an area debate.

But if an arts program is desired, for example, it should be added to an existing school, according to Dhieux. He also believes that a charter board would need to be elected by the community, not chosen by the charter management firm in perpetuity.

Susan Harmon: Doesn't support for-profit charter schools, but supports neighborhood charter schools.

“We need to be careful continuing to proliferate and grow instead of sustaining what we have and to make sure needs are being met before we expand on that," she said at an area debate. "We have tons of choice here.”

Brad Rupert: Supports neighborhood charter schools.

However, Rupert said at an area debate that he does not support the Doral application because its parent company has come under a federal audit, it’s four blocks from an existing arts program, it's under-subscribed and only two seats on the self-perpetuating board are for parents. “I think our choice schools need to be choices driven by parents, by the families that want them,” he said.

Tori Merritts: Supports charter schools, not sure about out-of-state, for-profit charters.

As a member of the school board from 1994 to 2003, Merritts said at an area debate that she approved eight neighborhood charter schools that are still operating today. She says she has not reviewed any for-profit, out-of-state charter proposals, so it's difficult to say without that review. She did serve on the board when the Edison Project out-of-state, for-profit concept was trying to come to JeffCo. After months of study, the school board was against it in the final analysis.

Julie Williams: Supports charter schools.

"I am proud that JeffCo offers a great variety of choice to its families because every child is unique with a unique learning style," Williams told CPR News. "JeffCo also only supports parent and community driven charters. I am not in favor of our schools being taken over by big money such as Bill Gates."

John Newkirk: Would consider national or international charter schools.

"I’d consider any initiative - local, national, or international - that would result in higher student achievement," he told CPR News. "For example, many of Colorado’s top-performing schools already use a Virginia-based curriculum called Core Knowledge. Our Montessori schools all have Italian roots. Our high schools offer Advanced Placement, a program based out of New York. To presume that only homegrown initiatives are appropriate for our students seems provincial in today’s global environment."

Ken Witt: Supports for-profit charter schools.

"Charter schools are not for-profit enterprises. Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools and district-run schools could use services from for-profit businesses, including back office services," Witt told CPR News.

"Our district schools buy materials and other services from outside companies, many of which are not headquartered in Jefferson County, and so may our charter schools," Witt said. "I do not intend to unnecessarily restrict the choices available to our schools to be financially responsible."

Do you support the recall?

Brad Rupert: Supports the recall.

"We have to stop the loss of extraordinary teachers and leaders from our schools," he said at an area debate. "We need to eliminate the politics and the hostility and the friction that goes on in the board room. This is a dysfunctional board. Its leadership is not listening. We need to work on consensus, not hostility.”

Susan Harmon: Supports the recall.

“We can rebuild our community,” she said at an area debate. “We can reassess what’s going on with our teachers and bring people back. We have to get rid of disrespect. It’s poisonous.”

Matthew Dhieux: Supports the recall.

The number one issue is respect, he said at an area debate, and “that starts with thoughtful listening.”

Ali Lasell: Supports the recall.

“All stakeholders from the taxpayer without kids, to the teacher, to the parent to the small business owners have been completely ignored by this board majority and once we get our voices back, everything else will fall into place,” Lasell said at an area debate.

Kim Johnson: Doesn't support the recall.

Johnson doesn’t support the recall but says that has nothing to do with the level of respect and lack thereof at the board table. “I don’t support the overuse of recall because[…] it increases the influence of special interest groups in politics," she said at an area debate. "That said, the level of respect and the level of conversation has to improve at the board table or we are going to continue to see disengagement in this community.”

Amanda Stevens: Supports the recall.

She wants kids to be at the center of decisions at the school board table. “I don’t believe it is right now," Stevens said at an area debate. She wants students to be at the center of the work, not politics.

Paula Noonan: Supports the recall.

The problem with the current board, she said at an area debate, is the "ram and jam."

“We’re getting stuffed,” she said. “On the other hand, if another slate gets elected, you’re just going to have people from the other side doing the same thing, that’s the problem. This is why I’m running. I’m not part of a slate.”

Regan Benson: Does not support the recall.

“This recall made it on the ballot with knowingly false and malicious statements," Benson said at an area debate. "I am all about process, if it had been put on the ballot with honesty, perhaps it would be a different story.”

Ron Mitchell: Supports the recall.

“I am concerned about the political agenda that is hidden from us with this board, but that expresses itself in terms of [lack of] respect," he said at an area debate. "I would encourage you to go back, find a couple of board meetings and watch them. You’ll be stunned. And go find a couple of classroom teachers and talk to them and find out how they feel about respect.”

Tori Merritts: Did not say.

"The seat I am running for is not part of the recall," she said at an area debate. "It is for a four-year term. I respect the right of citizens to sign petitions to recall elected officials. I have major concerns that five new people with no school board experience may be elected in November. School board elections are staggered for a reason. I have but one vote to cast in this election. It is up to the majority of voters to determine the outcome."

Ken Witt: Facing recall.

"I am proud of the work that we have done on the JeffCo Board, including bringing greater equality to education funding, giving teachers $21 million in raises, opening meetings to the public, bringing free full day kindergarten to every child eligible for free and reduced lunch, and giving the community and principals greater control in their schools, among other achievements," Witt told CPR News.

John Newkirk: Facing recall.

"I'm proud of the work the Board of Education has accomplished over the past year and a half, including raising salaries for the first time in years, bringing greater equality to student funding, opening union negotiations to the public, funding the construction of a new K-6 school without incurring debt, and giving the community and principals greater control in their schools - all while adding money to district reserves," Newkirk told CPR News.

Julie Williams: Facing recall.

"I am excited about the accomplishments of the current JeffCo Board of Education; we have a strong focus on academic achievement and fiscal responsibility," she told CPR News. "Among the board’s accomplishments she cites the new pay for performance model, teacher raises, equal funding for charter schools, expansion of school choice, implementation of student-based budgeting, and setting aside $18 million in cash for a new school."

How will you address the classroom shortage/overcrowding problem?

Background: District staff recommended issuing Certificates of Participation, a financing method to fund several buildings because of rapid student growth in certain areas of the district. That recommendation was rejected by the board which decided to instead use $18 million in operating funds saved from last year’s budget to fund one new elementary school.

Brad Rupert: “We are behind because the current board is doing nothing. It is a big deal. They need to start doing the construction," he said at an area debate. "COPs are an appropriate funding mechanism for investing in long-term assets. In the private world, when you don’t have cash you use appropriate debt tied to the asset you want to put into service."

Susan Harmon: Says the board received information about the gravity of building needs early on but failed to act.

“Now we are going to be in a position of making some really difficult decisions,” she said at a debate. “We are going to need to be looking at COPs, looking at a bond, [being] creative with facilities we have because there are just aren’t enough resources.” She says temporary buildings are not an answer for the growth in the district.

Matthew Dhieux: "We cannot wait to build these schools. Construction costs are rising and interest rates are low right now," he said at an area debate. "So we need to build what we need to today instead of waiting three years when those buildings will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more to build."

Ali Lasell: Says she would have approved the COPs.

"We are now in crisis mode for the northwest corridor and we need three schools up there, not just one," she said in an area debate. "Not just one that’s too small to accommodate the growth right now which is what’s happening [in Solterra, and Rooney Ranch developments.]"

"We’ve got to be fiscal long-range planners,” she said at a debate.

Kim Johnson: "We needed to address this facilities plan longer than two years ago. We’re way behind. We need a plan," she said at an area debate.

"We need to not only address where we need new construction but we need to address what we’re going to do with existing facilities that have deficiencies and what we’re going to do with the schools that we’ve already closed," she went on, "We need to look at a capital bond in 2016. Fiscal responsibility does not include using a large amount of our operating budget to pay for capital expenses."

Amanda Stevens: Says there are short-term and long-term issues.

"We are in a state funding crisis. During the recession we created a huge hole in our school funding to the tune of almost a billion dollars a year. JeffCo is short $80 million from the state this year and over the past several years, hundreds of millions," she said at an area debate. Stevens would support a bond in 2016, she would have said yes to COPs in lieu of a bond to build and maintain and repair facilities.

Paula Noonan: "You cannot take care of the $500 million facilities need we have with operating money. You can’t even take care of it with certificates of participation," she said at an area debate.

"This is a backlog that was there when I was on the board and it’s just gotten worse," she continued, "This board will not go for a bond because they are anti-tax. I would go for a bond and the sooner the better because interest rates are low and that’s when you have to do it."

Ron Mitchell: "This board ran on a platform of no debt, no taxation. If that’s what you believe, you get behind the curve on [school] housing needs," he said at an area debate.

"We are significantly behind. A new board will need every tool that’s available to us to meet the short term and long term housing needs in Jefferson County. We are simply behind. We could be doing a better job using COPs. Now might be a good time to use them because interest rates are extremely low and construction costs are going up 15 percent a year."

Regan Benson: COPs circumvent TABOR and need to be taken to the taxpayers for a vote to increase debt burden on the district, she said at an area debate.

Tori Merritts: "Had I been on the board in 2012, I may have pushed for a larger bond issue to address growth," she said at an area debate.

"For the short-term, I support the building of a new elementary school using one-time dollars and not COPs. History has shown that incurring debt without asking the tax payers is a bad idea that erodes public support for our public schools. Our community needs to be included in a conversation about how to best use the facilities we already have and be educated about the importance of investing/reinvesting in our infrastructure. It takes a lot of time to garner community support for a tax increase," Merritts said.

John Newkirk: "JeffCo has seen substantial growth recently, particularly in the northwest corridor, yet district-wide our occupancy remains at about 90 percent of seating capacity," Newkirk told CPR News.

"Accordingly, we must ensure efficient use of existing facilities while bringing major capital construction projects (new schools, stadium, etc.) to a vote of the people for approval. To usurp the taxpayer via Certificates of Participation would be improper and, in my opinion, imperil what might otherwise be a successful bond issue in 2016," he said.

Julie Williams: "Not all of our schools have a classroom shortage. In fact, several of our schools are below capacity," Williams told CPR News.

"Families are choosing to drive past their neighborhood schools to go to a high performing school miles farther from home," she said. Williams doesn’t support using COPs to pay for building needs. She says a bond will likely go before voters in 2016.

Ken Witt: "While we have seat demand in the NW corridor, we have schools at less than 70 percent utilization in other areas nearby," Witt told CPR News.

"This board has already approved changes that better utilize existing facilities while we have also approved two new schools in the northwest, Golden View Classical Academy and a new neighborhood K-6 funded for construction with no new debt. We are presently considering a third school proposal for the northwest. We will consider both new charter schools proposed for the area, as well as a bond issue for new construction of neighborhood district-run schools as needed," he said.

Is the district’s new policy on student-based budgeting working? Should all children have access to free, full-day kindergarten?

Background: The board of education approved a new policy of student-based budgeting that distributes dollars to schools based on the number of students and their needs and schools decide how to spend the money. For example, they may choose to spend it on reducing class sizes, additional mental health supports, or free full-day kindergarten. All students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch are eligible for free full-day kindergarten in any school that offers full-day kindergarten.

Susan Harmon: "It is a challenge but it [full-day kindergarten] has to be available for all children," she said at an area debate.

"Student-based is a problem because they say that’s the option – you pay for your kindergarten it doesn’t work that way, you have limited resources and you’re choosing between a librarian, a school psychologist or kindergarten. It’s not as simple as that it’s more complex," Harmon said.

Ali Lasell: All kids need to have access to full-day kindergarten.

“It is shameful that we only have 25 free full-day kindergartens and it needs to change,” she said at an area debate.

Kim Johnson: "Eighty percent of this year’s kindergartners in JeffCo are in a full-day program," she said at an area debate.

"All but two of 90 elementary schools have a full-day kindergarten. About a quarter offer it to free to everybody, through student-based budgeting. All free and reduced lunch students have kindergarten for free at the 90 schools where it is offered," Johnson said.

Tori Merritts: "People have the opportunity to pay for kindergarten if they want to have full-day kindergarten in all but two of our schools. And a lot of people opt out of kindergarten because it’s not required," she said at an area debate.

Amanda Stevens: "If 80 percent of our families are choosing full-day kindergarten, I’m glad for them," she said in an area debate.

"I worry about, of the 20 percent [who are not], how many are choosing half day because they can’t afford full-day but they don’t quite qualify for free and reduced lunch," she said. “I wouldn’t mandate full-day kindergarten but we have not yet landed on a mechanism for making it affordable for all of our families."

Brad Rupert: He sees weaknesses in the student-based budgeting program. "A number of people can’t quite swing the cost of full-day kindergarten and so it is then left up to the schools to use their discretionary money under student-based budgeting. And there are many other priorities particularly in the schools that are in challenged areas," he said at an area debate.

Matthew Dhieux: He said at an area debate that there are problems in how student-based budgeting is working.

"For free and reduced lunch children, the school gets reimbursed partly but not at the full rate, therefore schools that are providing full-day kindergarten to students who are free and reduced are not getting the same amount of money that the school with fewer free and reduced lunch kindergartners are getting," he said at an area debate.

Ron Mitchell: "We need to develop a program that gives us access to a greater number of families particularly those in poverty," he said at an area debate.

"Overall, we need to invest more money in it which is difficult to do. Student-based budgeting plan actually may be hurting our ability to provide services to students who need it."

Regan Benson: "Full-day kindergarten is not a mandate," she said at an area debate. "Perhaps sometimes kids want to stay home. I would be fully opposed to mandating kindergarten."

Paula Noonan: "We already have tiered funding for Outdoor Lab and Breakfast After the Bell so we have a structure to make this work and I think that would be a place to start to figure out how we can make sure kids who are on the bubble financially, make sure they get the services they need," she said an area debate.

Julie Williams: "We have equalized the free full-day kindergarten for our free lunch students across the district rather than by zip code," she told CPR News.

"The district just does not have the funds to pay for free full-day kindergarten. In Florida, they offered free full-day kindergarten and it almost bankrupted the public school system. Studies also show that by 3rd grade that student performance for those who had full-day kindergarten and those that did not equaled out," Williams said.

John Newkirk: "This Board changed the district’s old approach to funding full-day kindergarten," Newkirk told CPR News.

"The old system unfairly distributed FDK funding via an arbitrary cutoff figure such that many parents who could afford FDK received it for free, while some of our most needy families did not. I was pleased to cast my vote for a fairer, more equitable system that offers FDK to all eligible families. Student-based budgeting made this improvement possible," he said.

Ken Witt: "For the first time in JeffCo history, all free and reduced lunch students have access to free full-day kindergarten," Witt told CPR News.

He says to if one says that that the number of schools offering free and reduced lunch schools has dropped, that means including “schools that gave full-day kindergarten to even those students whose families may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year."

"This board corrected the priority, and ensured that students of greatest need received free full-day kindergarten, not just those lucky enough to live in the right zip code, as was the previous policy. The state does not provide sufficient funding for free full-day kindergarten for all students,” Witt said.