I received the following op-ed from a retired Douglas County School employee via email tonight. Humble ISD parents are not happy with the selection of a superintendent who was all but run out of the Douglas County School District in Colorado. They have been protesting and having meetings to ensure their children will have a leader who has the best interest of ALL the children in the district.
Humble ISD parents do not have paid consultants. One must ask if moms and pops could find out as much as they have so far about Elizabeth Fagen, what exactly did the board pay for? One’s eyes must remain on the ball. It is evident that the Humble ISD board failed in one of their most important tasks, selecting a superintendent. Moreover, they failed at their fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of the district’s money if they paid any agency for this selection.
Given the speed with which events are moving on Humble ISD hiring a questionable superintendent, I think the responsible thing to do is to get the information out. For the sake of transparency, I am including the email sans email address. It was sent to my blog site a few hours ago.
Update: 2016-06-06: I asked Steve Mitchell provide more information about himself and he sent the following.
I taught in public schools for 22 years before retiring in 2011. The last 15 years of my career were spent as a high school teacher in Douglas County, Colorado (southern suburb of Denver) where I taught U.S. History, Economics, and AP Psychology. Prior to my career in education, I worked in the counseling field as a mental health worker in a psychiatric facility in Denver and also as an alcoholism counselor before going back to school to be licensed as a teacher. I authored a book entitled “Healing Our Schools” that was published in 1995.
I certainly didn’t anticipate the future attempts by Liz Fagen and her school board to promote letting parents use public monies to enroll their children in private or religious schools, a plan that they were eventually stopped from implementing. Nor did I ever imagine that a school district would ever take the business approach as outlined in my letter. Most of that agenda was implemented after I retired, but morale was on the decline among teachers shortly after she was hired and the school board at that time was elected.
When I wrote my letter in 2013, I consulted with a good friend still teaching in Douglas County and he confirmed for me that my views were accurate. The morale is still quite low in the school district because the board is still controlled by the people that Liz Fagen worked with. However, three of the board members who were pressing her agenda were ousted in the last election in 2015 so there is hope that eventually, Douglas County Schools can regain its past reputation for excellence. A similar attempt was made by conservatives in Jefferson County (western suburb of Denver) when they got their selected board members elected in 2010. They were all re-called last year and now, the new school board is seemingly working well with educators to re-build the reputation of the district.
I hope this is helpful information for you. If you need any other information, let me know.
Perhaps you saw this article in the Denver Post, but if not, you would find it interesting. Parents in Douglas County have finally gotten themselves more informed and that makes me very happy.
I read with interest your coverage of the hiring of Liz Fagen in Texas. You may or may not have background knowledge of what she did in Douglas County Colorado, but if you’re going to continue to delve into this issue, protesting parents should know what Fagen is likely to bring to their school district. I wrote the attached letter in 2013 to try to inform parents and others what was going on, but the papers never published it. I think you would find it informative of the policies Liz Fagen promoted with the school board here.
A Letter to Douglas County Parents
This past January (2013), Jacob Walden, a former student at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, penned an editorial in the Denver Post confronting the policies of the school board in Douglas County. In February, I was at a local bank opening an account when the manager noticed that I was retired from Douglas County Schools and he wanted to know if I saw the editorial and what I thought of it. My answer was, “yes, and it was all true.”
In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that he lives in Highlands Ranch and has children who attend the elementary school in his neighborhood. He was surprised by the article and by my comments because he hadn’t heard of any troubles with the schools. I believe this parent is an excellent example of many parents with school aged children in Douglas County; busy with work and with children, financially stressed in some cases, and not very well informed as to what has been happening in their schools for several years now. It’s not all their fault. There just hasn’t been a lot of objective publicity on the issue and the school district has an effective PR team. Jacob spoke eloquently to the plight of students. I would like to speak to the problems facing employees in the school district.
I taught at Highlands Ranch High School for fifteen years. For the first twelve years I believed our school was on an equal footing with any well performing school in Colorado, public or private. I’m sure the teachers at other schools in the county felt the same way, but when the Great Recession forced us to deal with a new reality, there were severe cuts to the district budget every year thereafter. Fewer teachers were hired, there were no raises, except for the new Superintendent, class sizes increased to inappropriate levels, and many services were cut, including a decrease in the number of bus routes for young students.
Despite these cuts, teachers and administrators continued to provide a rich and safe learning environment for their students. As is well known, teachers don’t get into the profession for the money. Yes, teachers like to be able to pay their bills and afford to raise their families, but more importantly, their wealth lies in the personal satisfaction of a job well done, the excitement they see in their students’ eyes as they are learning every day, in the thanks they receive from parents and others, and in the joy of seeing their students succeed in school and in life. While the public usually hears a lot about the poor teachers their children sometimes have, the vast majority of teachers work extremely hard to provide the best education possible. I saw it every day of my work life in education.
That positive environment, unfortunately, began to change with the election of a new type of school board, one seemingly responsive to community anger over the budget cuts and one focused on an agenda of “choice”, which in this case meant creating a system in which families can use public money to send their children to private/religious schools. In regard to the implementation of this agenda, Jacob referred to it as a “businesslike and Darwinian approach to managing schools.” I would call it the McDonalds business model, publicized in the past by critics of the fast food industry. That model calls for as little training as possible for employees to minimize costs, a low wage, an acceptance of high turnover, and the efficient churning out of inexpensive products that the public will buy. Symbolically speaking then, the superintendent and school board must believe that public school teachers are comparable to cooking oil at a restaurant, necessary and useful, but easily replaced. And students are the evenly cooked french fries that result.
For the very low percentage of poor teachers who have gotten away with being lazy, ineffective, and/or unconcerned about the welfare of their students, this is an understandable attitude. All of us have had poor teachers in the past who were memorable for their lack of skills in the art of education, but take a moment and think about the good and sometimes great teachers that we have all also had. The experience, training, empathy, work ethic, and the desire for excellence that they bring to the profession are irreplaceable.
However, that view does not fit well with the business model the school district has implemented. If the superintendent and school board were truly concerned about having high quality educators, they would be trying to stem the tide of teachers and administrators who are leaving Douglas County Schools. Instead, they have implemented policies that have accelerated these departures.
In their desire to emphasize the importance of math and science in the overall curriculum, the district designed a tiered system of salaries that pays these teachers at a higher rate than teachers in other subject areas. This change has created a “class system” within the teaching community and has served to divide and demoralize educators. In what world should a freshman science teacher be payed more than an AP English teacher? And what fair system would punish an experienced and inspiring music or art teacher by paying them less than the newly hired math teacher just out of college?
The idea that one should set the salary for teaching positions based on the number of applicants available is also absurd and it only serves to communicate to teachers that they aren’t important. Further, since the pool of applicants for math and science jobs is small, it is likely that some mediocre teachers will be hired out of necessity, while a large pool of social studies applicants allows principals to be very selective and hire only the best. I believe that parents and students would take a good social studies teacher over a mediocre science teacher any day of the week and demand that they be paid a commensurate salary to other good educators.
Another issue that creates divisions among personnel is the policy of sick leave pay. When teachers discover that administrators at the district level are given full salary for their accumulated sick leave hours upon leaving the school district while teachers receive only a little over $6.00 per hour for their accumulated leave, it communicates a form of elitism that is damaging to the overall school system. It may be permissible for a board of directors to reward a CEO with an exorbitant salary. After all, corporations can spend their profits in any manner they deem useful. However, school systems are not corporations and it is entirely inappropriate in the public non-profit sector to waste precious state and federal funds to unfairly reward certain employees over others.
The teacher evaluation system that was recently instituted also illustrates the motivation of the superintendent and school board. This system, which Post writer Zahira Torres has examined in recent articles, rates teachers as highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective. District personnel apparently believe that teachers in this system fit into a bell curve in relation to their abilities, so to them, there were clearly too many highly effective teachers at Trailblazer elementary because it surpassed the average in the district. Who are they to say there can’t be 70% of the teachers at any given school that are highly effective? If true, this just means that Trailblazer is an awesome school that parents can be proud of. It’s sad that it took a retiring principal, Linda Schneider, to buck a system that attempts to pay teachers as little as possible. I’m guessing that other principals in Douglas County feel that they have to fall into line with this bell curve evaluation policy in order keep their jobs. Current teachers are also in the same position of keeping quiet about policies they disagree with in order to continue working in Douglas County and the AFT, who represents them, can no longer protect them against retribution from the district. Is this really the type of environment you want in your school system?
As a result of these and other policies, large numbers of fine teachers, administrators, and other district employees have left Douglas County Schools over the last five years. After the 2011/12 school year, for example, 304 teachers had left the school district, a 42% increase over the previous year. This figure was provided by the school district and quoted in an online Post article by Clayton Woullard dated August 13, 2012. With them left a great pool of talent, experience, and expertise in teaching and in running our schools. When the economy improves sufficiently, many more currently trapped employees will choose to leave and work for the area school districts that still respect and admire the skills that good educators and leaders bring to the profession.
And what of the young teachers hired to take their places? These teachers bring creativity, talent, and energy to the job and they refresh the field of education on a regular basis, but at the same time, they need support in order to be successful. Without experienced mentors in their departments who would normally be collaborating with them to help them hone their skills, they too will become frustrated and disheartened. The ones who can withstand a depressing work environment will stay for the experience and then leave when they get the chance. It may be that the superintendent and school board want a younger, cheaper workforce. I would argue that this is damaging to the workforce and to our students. Teachers are not cooking oil and students are certainly not french fries.
Left unchallenged, this school board and superintendent could very well degrade the quality of the public schools in Douglas County to a point where parents without the means to make an authentic choice in education for their children are left behind in declining public schools. Public money that would have been available to shore up these schools will transfer to other area school districts where families with the means will have moved their children. An increasing number of other families will, of course, demand those education vouchers that are on hold right now so that they can enroll their children in private schools. Oh, wait, isn’t this what the school board actually wants to have happen?
I strongly urge you to add your voices to those of the many parents who know what is truly going on and are fighting to save the quality of their public schools. I know with certainty that teachers and school administrators who remain in Douglas County are working very hard to prevent the current problems from adversely impacting their students. They still care. I hope you do too and will help to save Douglas County Public Schools in the next election by voting out the current board in favor of a board that actually understands and values public education.