Expensive education errors, on your dime

By Krista Kafer krista555@msn.com The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post were full of stories this week about mistakes, blunders, and all around poor performance in the public education sector. From missing money, to fishy figures, to poor choices and lost opportunities, K-12 education and higher education had a tough week in the papers.

Costly mistakes or worse: Colorado University grabbed headlines for several days. Colorado University coach Gary Barnett left his job with $3 million just as a new audit of CU systemwide procedures found trouble in the athletic department and beyond. Such problematic findings include $30,000 in gift certificates purchased from a CU regent’s clothing store, and unaccounted-for cash spent during the 2002 bowl game. “The horse has already left the University of Colorado barn with $3 million in his saddlebags. Comes now the state auditor to lock the doors and sound the alarm,” observes the News editorial.

Fishy Figures: Another recent News editorial chastised the CO Department of Education for creating a policy that would allow schools to count GED earners among graduates. The legislature voted last session to direct the Board of Education to standardize how districts report drop out and graduation rates. Without a standard, districts have a strong incentive to report figures that put them in the best light. The new rules developed by the Department of Education would improve reporting in some respects. Allowing districts to report GED earners as graduates, however, is a step backward. These students’ earning prospects are more similar to dropouts than graduates. Because earning a GED is not the same as graduating, there needs to be truth in reporting. Board Member Jared Polis is leading the charge to ensure the public knows the difference.

The state has a similar reporting problem when it comes to reporting school safety infractions. A Denver Post column does a good job explaining how the current reporting policies keep the public in the dark. Jefferson County, the state’s largest school district, reported no school safety infractions on its School Accountability Reports while Westminster reported nearly 700 assaults or fights. The columnist asks “Do we have a substantial pacifist community in Jefferson County and an exceptionally violent one in Westminster?” Unless there is a change to how districts report statistics, we might get that impression.

Poor Performance: Sadly, even when students manage to graduate from high school (unmaimed) they may not have the skills to tackle college work. The News reports that a third of Colorado high school graduates who enrolled in public CO colleges last year needed remediation in at least one core subject. The percentage of students needing remedial courses is up two percent from last year. These figures come from a new report by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Jefferson County, the state’s largest school system, is home to the best and worst performing schools in this regard. Only one percent of D'Evelyn Jr./Sr. High School needed remediation while more than 70 percent of graduates of Jefferson County Open School needed help. Overall, less than a third of Jeffco students needed remediation. In comparison, half of Denver’s graduates needed remediation.

Poor Choices: Lastly I wanted to draw your attention to the newest Independence Institute report, which fits in the poor choices category. The paper is by Benjamin DeGrow, entitled "Nullifying the Probationary Period: Extra Job Protection for Many New Jeffco Teachers Takes Priority over Kids." What we find here is that although Colorado has a three-year probationary period in statute for teachers seeking tenure, the state’s largest school district has negotiated a contract with the union that provides a few loopholes.

The probationary period gives principals a chance to remove poor performing teachers before they get tenure, after which it becomes costly and difficult to do so. The Jefferson County R-1 (Jeffco) contract, however, allows a probationary instructor to file a grievance if the district does not renew his/her contract. Last year, the district overruled a Jeffco principal’s recommendation to not renew a contract for a probationary teacher who was cited for repeated unprofessional behavior. The Jeffco essentially puts a loophole in a law that protects students and taxpayers from bad apples. Degrow recommends the district jettison the provision during the next negotiation.

As a taxpayer, reading about the blunders, reporting problems, and poor performance left me feeling a little irked. I’m tempted not to the read the papers for the rest of the week.