School District 51 board must embrace bold education reform
It’s easy to understand why some Mesa County residents recoiled at the fight for control of the School District 51 school board.
Kids and politics don’t mix, keep partisanship out of our schools, school board races are supposed to be mundane, not high stakes — the sound bites that argue against turning school board races into high profile contests are persuasive, at least on the surface.
The problem with the sentiment is, something as important as educating our kids shouldn’t have ever become mundane in the first place.
Elections for dogcatcher and county treasurer can be forgiven for becoming perfunctory. If you think leadership of a school district has a bearing on the quality of the education our kids receive, a school board race never should be.
That’s why, watching the raucous debate about District 51 from afar, I couldn’t help but think: It’s about time. A vigorous debate about something so important is past due, especially in District 51, where mediocrity has been the norm for too long.
While there are notable exceptions (Palisade, New Emerson, Redlands Middle and Scenic among them), most of our schools are dishing out C-style work products. As The Daily Sentinel reported this year, “Nearly half of those local high school graduates (from District 51) who went to an in-state college three months after graduation — 47.4 percent — needed at least one remedial math, reading or writing course in college, up from 43.8 percent for the District 51 Class of 2010 and 40 percent for the Class of 2009.”
All that was fodder for the election that ended last Tuesday, where a slate of Republican-backed candidates lost.
The verdict in the state’s largest school districts, meanwhile, was buoyantly pro-reform — Denver, Jefferson County and Douglas County voters all dealt rousing victories to candidates promising reforms such as expanded choice, merit pay for teachers and ending union political dues collection.
I personally worked with a number of groups supporting these reforms in Douglas County, the district that has become a poster-child for both sides of the school reform fight. In the end, the unions were dealt a decisive defeat in Douglas County and elsewhere. Why?
In Douglas County and Denver, where reforms have had a couple years to percolate, outcomes are improving.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the groundswell of support for school reform transcends conservative-versus-liberal constructs. Denver is as Democratic as Colorado gets. Douglas County is as Republican as Colorado gets. And Jefferson County is the nation’s most talked about swing county. All embraced bold education change.
The important question for the school board now is: Will District 51 embrace bold change, or will it toe the line that gets us more of the same?
In my view, it would be a serious misread of the election for those elected Nov. 5 to interpret their victory as a ringing endorsement of the status quo. If bold reform is supported in a liberal bastion like Denver, expect it to take root in Mesa County, too, sooner than later.
Rather than wait for the next round of election upheaval, the new board should set the district on a path of common-sense improvement. Yes, the new board should embrace reform.
Thanks to an improving economy, school funding is increasing. Rather than throw that money into the status quo, the district should construct a bona fide merit pay system that will reward and attract great teachers with increased pay.
The board should also embrace new tenure reforms and empower the district to remove teachers who aren’t getting the job done. The union will not like this, but all of the prevailing candidates have said they have no special allegiance to the union, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
The school board should take the existing school calendar and tear it up. Cut back on in-service days. Rein in the proliferation of extended mid-year vacations and holidays.
Meanwhile, the district should consider closing chronically underperforming schools, then re-opening them under reconstituted leadership and staff.
Will these changes be controversial? Of course. But real leadership always is. Mesa County deserves better than a school system that is too often mediocre.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.