Jeffco’s conservative school board majority’s last hurrah

Last week, during the last hurrah for the current Jefferson County Board of Education, the ousted conservative majority, Julie Williams, Board ro-resident Ken Witt and John Newkirk, took one last stab at pushing their agenda onto the county’s disgruntled voters.

The room was packed with 300 people. Nearly all of those in attendance supported the recall, and they weren’t going to let the conservative majority forget it.

Parent Jennifer LaDuc scolded the board majority, saying “hell hath no fury like a parent scorned.” She thanked the board for galvanizing the community and teaching her children the importance of standing up for what is right.

“For the rest of their lives they’ll know the power of protest and what it means to be an active part of history in the making,” she said.

Supporters of the conservative majority also were in attendance reserving some of their angriest rhetoric for the pro-recall faction.

Donna Jack, a member of the Evergreen Tea Party, criticized parents who brought their children to protests, calling them Communists and Marxists.

“In a Communist takeover, they always use the children,” she said, to howls and catcalls from some. Turning to face the audience, she shouted “Shame on you!” She also thanked the board for their service. “I thank you for every minute of suffering you’ve gone through.”

The board discussed giving bonus pay to Superintendent Dan McMinimee and approving a non-profit charter school that the two outgoing board minority members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman claimed had questionable connections with a for profit company and whose service provider is under federal investigation.

McMinimee’s performance bonus was part of his $260,000 per year contract authorized 18 months ago. Of that, $220,000 would come from salary, and up to $40,000 could be awarded for performance, assuming it was up to par.

But when it came to the 12 benchmarks McMinimee had to meet, they dropped four criteria because of a lack of data. Of the last eight, McMinimee was judged ineffective on two, partially effective on one, effective on three others and “highly effective” on the last two.

Fellman, during the discussion of the bonus, called McMinimee’s performance a “C+” and complained that teachers who are rated highly effective got only 1 percent salary increases.

One teacher who has been nationally recognized for her work and rated highly effective got just a $15 per paycheck raise this year, said Fellman.

“We want our leader to be treated like our educators.” she said.

While she respected McMinimee’s work, Dahlkemper said giving him a bonus was unfair and that she would not support it.

Witt countered that it was disrespectful to establish performance goals and bonus criteria, and then say, “Never mind. We don’t want to pay you.”

The discussion deteriorated into one of several loud disagreements, with frequent interruptions, throughout the evening, between Witt and the two minority members.

The debate over the proposed charter school Doral Academy was the evening’s highlight, drawing the most comments from the public and the most heated exchanges between board members.

McMinimee raised a number of concerns, and Witt proposed approving the school on the condition McMinimee’s worries were resolved.

Still the superintendent’s cabinet asked the board to reject the application.

The concern over Doral is based on several factors, as outlined by Fellman. The academy applied for charter school status last August for grades K-6, promising it would need 285 students to break even, and would eventually enroll 460 students in grades K-12.

As of the meeting, the academy had letters of intent from 207, far fewer than what is needed for a balanced budget, Fellman said.

The academy intends to offer an “arts integration” curriculum. Newkirk claimed last month that curriculum would be similar to that offered by the Denver School of the Arts, which currently draws students from Jefferson County.

But they’re not the same, Fellman said: The Denver school requires its students to audition to gain entrance, for example. An arts integration curriculum uses the arts to teach concepts, such as singing the alphabet song.

Schools in the proposed area for Doral, in Arvada, already use an arts integration curriculum, she said.

But the biggest charges were waged against the academy’s operator, Academica, which runs charter schools in Florida and Nevada.

Last year, the Miami Herald reported the company is under scrutiny from the U.S Department of Education’s inspector general, based on concerns about real-estate deals and conflicts of interest in its business practices.

Academica sets up nonprofit boards to initiate the applications, and once approved, Academica operates the schools, according to Buzzfeed.

Academica has been referred to by the Herald as Florida’s richest charter school management firm. The company’s owner has ties to presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Here in Colorado, the company has ties to attorney Brad Miller, who linked the Jefferson County and Loveland-based Thompson conservative school boards, as The Colorado Independent reported last month.

Doral is not Academica’s first attempt at getting into the Colorado charter school market: another application, for Heritage Heights Academy in the Cherry Creek School District, was rejected by that board last month.

As to Miller, Fellman and Dahlkemper questioned him closely about his ties to Academica. Dahlkemper pointed out that the Heritage Heights application said Miller was an attorney for Academica appeals. Miller said that was not correct, but said he has a relationship with the Heritage Heights board, which could contract with Academica for its services if the application is successfully appealed. He also said he had not been compensated by Heritage Heights but could be in the future.

Williams, who remained quiet throughout much of the meeting, spoke in favor of Doral.

“I don’t want to deny choice to our kids,” she said. If Doral meets the conditions set forth by the board, it will be a great option for students. If not, the application can be denied by the next board,” she said.

Newkirk added that he believes the academy can meet its enrollment targets.

McMinimee recommended the board reject the application and ask the academy to come back in April with a balanced budget proposal. He also suggested the charter include in its application that it would not contract for administrative services with Academica.

The board, on its usual 3-2 vote, approved the resolution.

The issue is far from over. Fellman told The Colorado Independent that Doral will have to come prove in April that it will be financially solvent and have the number of students needed to move forward. 

But coming back in April will put the academy on the new board’s radar, and that won’t be pretty.

All five newly elected board members have stated they are opposed to for-profit charter schools.  Fellman said the new board could ask the academy to address additional concerns, or even require the company to redo the application.

A research committee of the League of Women Voters gave the Jeffco board a letter, outlining concerns they had in looking at Doral and Academica. The League did not formally endorse the research, according to Sue Mavinelli, a former Jeffco school board president and member of the research group.

In that letter, the researchers said the Cherry Creek board noted the Academica contract with Heritage Heights would violate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights because the contract required automatic renewal every year. TABOR does not allow multi-year financial commitments and would require each academy to have enough cash reserves to meet all of its future financial contractual obligations.

Given that Academica is a privately-held corporation, it is not required to disclose its financial and management practices, which would make conflicts of interest harder to uncover, the letter said.

As to Miller, the research letter said he is the attorney for Academica applications and appeals, a conflict of interest since Miller, as board attorney, could be on both sides of the charter negotiation.

The letter also said that while the federal investigation is not yet complete, a letter from the Department of Education to the state of Florida’s education department indicated the audit uncovered conflicts of interest between charter management companies and the schools they manage.

Part of the reason Cherry Creek rejected the Heritage Heights charter was because the application lacked a rigorous conflict of interest policy, according to the letter.


Correction 11/10/15: The original article stated that Doral Academy would be a for-profit charter. It would be a non-profit charter school contracting with a for-profit company for all business management services.

Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.