On Friday, opposition to new Jefferson County School Board proposals regarding teacher pay and history instruction focusing on "patriotism" exploded into action, with instructor sickouts leading to closures at two high schools, Standley Lake and Conifer, where students rallied to offer support. Now, amid warnings about a possible sickout repeat today, students from at least three Jeffco high schools are planning walkouts tomorrow, and a petition decrying American history censorship has gathered more than 8,000 signatures and counting. Photos, video and details below.
The politicization of metro-area school boards began several years back in Douglas County, and it's proven to be a canny strategy. Since such races have traditionally been low-profile and nonpartisan in these parts, the well-financed efforts of idealogues with conservative agendas have met relatively little resistance until recently. Last November, this phenomenon bore fruit in Jefferson County, where three candidates backed by Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, earned school board seats. And on Thursday, the triumvirate -- Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt -- approved a controversial teacher compensation package shorthanded by 7News like so:
• Increasing the minimum pay for a Jeffco teacher to $38,000.
• A teacher with an ineffective rating or a partially effective rating with a non-probationary contract won't get a raise.
• There will be pay increases for all teachers rated effective or highly effective during the 2013-14 school year.
• A teacher with an effective rating will get a raise of 2.43 percent.
• A teacher with a highly effective rating will get almost double -- a 4.25 percent raise.
This merit-pay approach incensed the Jefferson County Education Association, whose members issued a no-confidence vote in regard to Witt, the school board's president.
While the union insists that it didn't coordinate the sickout at Standley Lake and Conifer high schools on Friday, the compensation plan was clearly a major motivating factor in approximately fifty teachers deciding to stay home -- and an internal e-mail to Jeffco staffers suggests that something similar is feared possible today.
Meanwhile, the school board is pushing a new "board committee for curriculum review" whose mandate has disturbed many students. Here's a description of the committee's mission, as excerpted in a Daily Kos article:
The committee shall be seated by the Board. Each director may nominated up to three candidates for the committee and the entire board then will vote to select the nine (9) members of the committee. The charge to the committee is to review curricular choices for conformity to JeffCo academic standards, accuracy and omissions, and to inform the board of any objectionable materials. The committee shall regularly review texts and curriculum according to priorities that it establishes, however, at any time, the Board may add items to the list for review. The committee shall report all comments (majority and minority) to the board in writing on a weekly basis as items are reviewed. Board members may move for discussion or action on items reported when matters warrant public discussion or action. The committee's initial projects will be a review of the AP US History curriculum and elementary health curriculum. Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.
Critics have interpreted this plan as censorship, pure and simple, as is made clear in the text of a MoveOn.org petition. The intro reads:
Jeffco Public School Board has just proposed a change of curriculum stating that, "Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage." This means that important parts of our history such as the Civil Rights Movement, Native American genocide, and slavery will not be taught in public schools. If these important lessons are not taught, children will not learn from them, and what will stop them from happening again? This is a severe form of censorship intended to keep the youth ignorant and easy to manipulate. I'm hoping to get enough signatures to prove that this is a public issue, so, please, if this is important to you, please sign. Do not let our youth grow up in ignorance; we all deserve the truth!
These themes are also sounded by Facebook groups associated with students at three Jefferson County schools: Pomona, Arvada West and Ralston Valley. All three encourage student walkouts at staggered times on Tuesday: 8:20 a.m. at Pomona, 9:40 a.m. at Arvada West and 10:50 a.m. at Ralson Valley. Here's the plan as detailed on the Arvada West page:
The School board may be making some dramatic changes that will not only impact us and the students after us but our wonderful teachers. The plan is to walk out during the passing period between advisement and 3rd period on Tuesday, September 23rd. The point is to make a statement about being against these changes, so instead of simply leaving the school we will line up along 64th with posters, signs, anything that shows that we are standing up for ourselves and our teachers. Keep it peaceful and not too rowdy to avoid any potential problems. Let everyone at Arvada West know about this! It's time to take a stand! Be sure to wear your purple on Tuesday and make signs and posters over the weekend! Be prepared!!
And here's how the Ralson Valley page puts it:
Due to the recent events in the Jefferson County School Board, the students have decided to have a Walkout. During the passing period after 2nd, walk out to 80th and start protesting peacefully. Also, positive messages only please; things like "We support our teachers" would be great! Be creative.
As the Daily Kos piece indicates, the protests are starting to be noticed by the progressive press on a national level. Meanwhile, Jeffco officials are reportedly considering discipline against any teacher who's found to be protesting the school board's moves by steering clear of classrooms.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.