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When All Else Fails, Organize and Advocate

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It was the perfect storm of a sour economy, declining home values, and an inhospitable tax environment. Educators rallied the public to save jobs and enhance education.

Times have changed for educators. It’s no longer enough for teachers to close their classroom doors and do a great job with kids. Owning our profession means being collaborative and proactive in ways that my parents, who taught in the same district I do, never dreamed of.

Like many teachers, I am also a taxpayer, a parent, and an active community member in my school district. I’ve learned that in today’s educational climate we have to harness the power of our roles as educators and community members to advocate for students and their futures. Collaboration, political awareness, and advocacy are skills that educators must master if we hope to build and sustain the public schools that children deserve. That’s a lesson that educators in Jefferson County, Colo., the state’s largest school district, learned firsthand in the last few years.

The Crisis

In the spring semester of the 2011-12 school year, things were looking quite dire for the 14,000 employees and 85,000 students in our district. We were confronting the same funding decrease caused by the recession that faced many other school districts around the country. With the burst of the housing bubble, homes were going into foreclosure, causing property values to decrease and lowering funding for schools. In addition, many people lost their jobs, causing them to delay spending on big-ticket items that provide tax revenue to the state and the schools.

Over the past decade, the percentage of funding that local communities and the state were contributing to Colorado school districts had almost completely reversed. We were more dependent on state funding than ever before at a time when state funding was decreasing at an alarming rate and local property tax revenues were falling. Added to this funding crisis were some factors specific to Jeffco Public Schools. Voters had historically rejected tax levy referenda to increase school funding, which reduced the amount of funding Jeffco received locally compared with neighboring districts. The one successful referendum in recent memory funded specific programs or initiatives, which could not help us fill the growing hole in our general budgetary fund. We had fewer special education and at-risk students than other districts in the Denver metro area, which gave us fewer grant opportunities, since grants usually prioritize high-poverty schools and districts. On the other hand, our special needs populations continued to increase with kids who had more complicated and extensive educational issues. While state and federal authorities increased the educational mandates intended to help these students, neither entity added corresponding funds. Declining enrollment also resulted in less state funding. Older people in our community tended to stay in their houses, causing Jeffco to have a large population of voters without kids in public schools. We had nearly depleted our district reserves. It was a perfect storm that resulted in a gap of $104 million.

Drastic cuts were made while trying to keep the effect of the budget problems away from classrooms. Many positions were cut through attrition. All staff had taken a 3% decrease in salary. Steps and levels were frozen, four professional development days were cut, and two furlough days were added to the calendar.

In an effort to find broader and collaborative solutions, the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA), the Jefferson County Classified Staff Education Association, the district, and the Jefferson County Administrators’ Association all came together to find solutions to the budgetary shortfall. But there was no way to get around the reality that something drastic had to be done.

By the 2013-14 school year, either revenue had to increase, or 600 jobs would have to be cut. Funding would not allow the districts to maintain valued programs, curriculum development, and class size at the same levels. One program on the chopping block was the Outdoor Education Lab School, a highly regarded program that allowed 6th graders to spend a week in the mountains with educators for team-building activities and an environmental science curriculum. Without this opportunity, many Jeffco students would grow up looking at mountains in the distance rather than experiencing the ecosystem firsthand. Losing the program would be a symbolic loss of not only what Jeffco does for students but also who we were as a district and community.

The Background

The dire straits helped pull the associations and the district together. In spring 2011, for the first time, we held a bargaining summit where representatives from all of the employee associations sat at the same table with the superintendent and school board representatives. We placed the entire district budget on the table to encourage creative problem solving and cooperation, rather than the impasse, public accusations, and layoffs that often accompany drastic budget cuts.

In the end, $40 million was cut from the 2011-12 budget, which included losing 200 positions. The district closed two schools and imposed new transportation fees for parents. Sadly, the situation continued to deteriorate, requiring additional cuts and sacrifice by all employees.

Before the 2012 summit, citizens groups, teachers, administrators, and district officials met to determine the priorities for further budget cuts and develop plans for a worst-case scenario. The final plan proposed cutting 600 additional positions, including all elementary band teachers and all middle school librarians and limiting course offerings and increasing class size. In the end, the stakeholders at the summit decided to offer a challenge to Jeffco staff and voters.

Getting Organized

The proposed list of cuts shocked and angered the staff and community. Everyone quickly calculated what the cuts would mean to their jobs, their families, and their schools. Different groups of educators including counselors, librarians, and elementary teachers, classified employees (bus drivers, food service, custodians, etc.), and administrators faced a choice of whether to band together as employee associations to come up with a solution or to isolate ourselves in our niche groups and work to protect our own jobs and programs.

The summit agreement did hold one thread of hope. None of the additional cuts would be made until voters had the chance to pass a school levy referendum and a bond initiative to avoid the drastic budget cuts. Very quickly, the employee associations worked with a group of bipartisan community members to begin a campaign to pass a $39-million referendum and $99-million bond initiative to fill the funding chasm and avoid further cuts.

Our educators’ association, JCEA, knew this would be a daunting challenge. Our district is large and diverse, with mountain, suburban, and urban populations further dividing the needs and priorities of the 154 school sites. It was essential that the coalition made up of the employee associations, community leaders, and PTA members target our efforts to maximize results.

Through our association office, JCEA staff and leaders, including our organizing cadre and speakers bureau, took the lead coordinating the development and implementation of a campaign structure and plan. Our association used the same skills educators use to meet student needs to guide us in prioritizing the interventions necessary to organize buildings. We categorized school buildings by looking at their members’ election activity levels, culture, and teacher leadership history; we placed them into critical, acceptable, and exceptional categories. We knew the teacher association representatives in the exceptional schools could manage the campaign on their own if we provided the materials to organize. The acceptable schools needed additional support and progress monitoring. But the schools deemed critical needed an association staff member or elected leader to go into the building, conduct the campaign meetings, and help them all along the way. We took our critical needs school list to the other groups and designated strong PTA or classified leaders that we could rely on to shoulder some of the work.

Collaboration, political awareness, and advocacy are skills that educators must master if we hope to build and sustain the public schools that children deserve.

We asked all building leaders to create a plan with the principal, PTA/PTO president, and classified staff leader to make people aware of the issues and to commit to action. In addition to the JCEA’s efforts, strong teacher leaders stepped up to organize their natural constituency groups.

Since elementary band was on the cut list, band teacher and JCEA activist Amy Woodley stepped forward to organize her colleagues and parents. Mike McQueen did the same to save the positions of all middle school teacher librarians even though his high school job would not be personally affected. Woodley and McQueen each created huge social media followings that helped them educate internal and external audiences, bring people to campaign events, and even alert people in real-time about decisions that were made and ways to make their voices heard by voters, the school board, and other elected officials. McQueen gained such a following and commitment that he bought a poster printer and decked out his RV as a mobile billboard to advertise the cause and publicize events. The RV quickly became a common site at parades, parks, rallies, and busy intersections where groups of supporters gathered to spread the word about our mission. Other groups, like building and district administrators, worked to rally their folks in a coordinated effort to save programs and jobs, and to create the best possible schools for students.

Our association and the citizen-led coalition worked with a bipartisan citizens’ action group composed of concerned business leaders and current and past elected officials to publicize the great things happening in our district. The campaign created a strong group of supporters and a clearinghouse of information about the referendum effort through Citizens for Jeffco Schools, an organization that took the lead on the campaign effort. The campaign steering committee took to heart the polling data that showed that voters want to hear positive messages about the possibilities our schools hold, rather than gloom-and-doom warnings about the worst-case scenario — even when the scary possibilities are real and imminent. We created building action teams of educators, classified employees, administrators, and parents at each school site dedicated to spreading the word about the campaign at every opportunity.

But the most important and effective piece of the campaign was creating a single, focused, positive message that resonated with all constituency groups. The process of crafting this message was not easy. While business leaders were most interested in the economic impact of the campaign, educators were worried about restoring salaries and reducing class size. Parents were focused on programs and opportunities for their children. Developing a cohesive, realistic plan that all stakeholders could support took a lot of discussion and compromise. Our association and the other members of the steering committee learned that true collaboration includes give-and-take that can be hard, but pays off in the long run. The message we finally all agreed to adopt appealed to all stakeholders: Jeffco Schools: Great Teachers, Great Schools, Great Communities.

The Political Climate

The effort to get voter support was not without opposition. Anti-tax groups, conservative think tanks, and certain groups of parents and community members assembled an organized, well-funded opposition to our campaign. Our association leaders have been through hard campaign fights before, so we knew voter turnout would be high in a presidential election year. Ensuring that our message was highly visible and understood in the community was very important. This campaign had an unknown variable: The focus on Colorado as a swing state and Jefferson County in particular — with similar numbers of registered Democrat, Republican and unaffiliated voters — would be a challenge even without organized opposition to our campaign.

Much of Jeffco’s funding problem was related to the state budget, which is constrained by competing funding requirements voted into our state constitution. The so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights requires voter approval of all tax hikes. Groups of concerned citizens and parents had filed a lawsuit hoping to have our state funding formula for education declared unconstitutional. There was talk of changing the school funding formula in the January 2013 legislative session and supporting a tax increase for schools in the 2013 general election if we could get legislative support.

The 2012 general election would also determine Colorado’s state house and senate majorities. Of the top 10 most highly contested races in Colorado, five were in Jefferson County. Our association had interviewed candidates for all of the open state races and made recommendations for candidates in most of the races. Because the state had been redistricted, some seats had substantially different voter composition than in previous years.

On top of all of these political issues, the legislature had recently passed an educator effectiveness law that revamped the evaluation and transfer procedures for all Colorado teachers, which angered and disillusioned many educators. JCEA and the other groups fighting for kids in our district had to make sure that our state legislature would have pro-public education majorities as we looked toward the upcoming legislative session. As members of the National Education Association, we knew what had happened in states like Arizona and Kansas when antiunion and antipublic education majorities took over the legislature, and we knew we had to stand up for kids in both our district and our state. Therefore, we had to make sure that we were not only working for the tax and bond levy proposals, but also for the candidates.

Outcomes

The coalition of community members, parents, educators, administrators, and education support professionals pulled out all the stops to make sure we could do what was right for Jeffco kids. Of the 154 schools in our district, staff and parents in 117 schools joined the campaign. Some 800 educators worked to ensure that voters understood what was at stake if the referenda failed. All told, JCEA members knocked on 41,000 doors to have crucial conversations with voters, telling personal stories about how the cuts would affect students. We mailed 10,000 postcards to remind voters in more remote areas to get involved and to vote. We made 2,000 phone calls through our get-out-the-vote effort as we pursued supporters to make sure their mail-in ballots were returned.

The results were remarkable. Our mill passed with 59%, and the bond won with 56% of the vote. We also won every legislative race, ensuring that the state legislature had members who support public education.

The hard work of the coalition saved 270 elementary teaching jobs, 66 middle school teachers, 159 high school teachers, 44 teacher librarians, 40 instructional coaches, 19 music teachers, and 17 counselors, and saved our outdoor lab program. The bipartisan coalition successfully kept money in our local economy, maintained property values, and avoided the pain of job loss for hundreds of families. Most important, we ensured that children like mine will have a quality, 21st-century education that will allow them to compete in the global marketplace of the future, further strengthening our local economy.

The success of our efforts resulted from building trust through ongoing discussion and collaboration; setting aside personal agendas; developing a unified, comprehensive plan; being open and honest about potential cuts; and organizing a strong grassroots campaign. We learned that when people step up for kids, amazing things can happen!

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