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Letter to DCSD Families

May 3, 2013

Dear DCSD Families:

As we enter the homestretch of school year, it seems like the perfect time to bring you up to speed on several topics that may be of interest to you.  In addition to an update of our many accomplishments this year, I also want to dispel a few rumors that may be floating around. 

Accomplishments

First, it has been another incredible year in Douglas County School District (DCSD).  As I recently completed my draft of our two-year strategic plan update, I was simply amazed at all we have accomplished together. In the near future, you will be receiving an abbreviated, user-friendly version of our two-year update with a link or code to the entire document – the original is approximately 26 pages.  If you have a chance to read it, I think you will be as excited as I am about both the work completed and the work ahead for our students.

TELL Survey Results

More than 71% of DCSD teachers participated in the 2013 TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Colorado Survey, registering the highest response rate in the metro area.— 17 points higher than the 2013 state average and 22 points higher than the district’s 2011 numbers. The results of this survey are very positive.  In over 60% of the questions, DCSD teachers’ responses were more positive – went up by 3% or more, than in 2011.  High percentages of teachers (over 80%) reported that they are seen as teacher leaders, that there is trust, and that they feel safe- three things we value and are very committed to in our district.  DCSD teacher satisfaction also significantly outpaced the state average on 75 of 97 data points (lower on only 7 points).

We are pleased that DCSD teachers feel empowered as leaders are recognized as educational experts, and an atmosphere of trust and collaboration exists in our schools. These represent our commitments to staff and ultimately benefit our students. 

View DCSD TELL Colorado results   •   Read survey analysis

New Outcomes for Our Students

Over the past year, we have reimagined and reinvented our K-12 curriculum in the core areas and many elective areas. We have reexamined who our students are (digital natives), and we have identified the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in their lifetimes by studying both the current research and literature on this topic.  We also synthesized the desired attributes of some of America’s top businesses like Nike, Google, Apple, Intel, and many others.  Our teachers have taken this information and created new learning progressions for K-12 by grade level and course that will make our students the best prepared in the world.

New Quality, Performance Assessments for Our Students

Identifying the most important outcomes that our students need to develop and learn is not enough, so we did not stop there.  Hundreds of our teachers have worked together to not only design the outcomes but to create high quality assessments to measure them too.  As you know, tests are not in short supply, but they have not and do not measure some of the most important knowledge and skills that our students will need to be successful in their lifetimes.  While we understand the need for accountability and showing our stakeholders how well our students are doing, it doesn’t make sense to measure that which is unimportant.  Assessments that measure what is important do not really exist.  There are a few summative assessments like PISA for Schools and NWRA that do measure some of the important skills, but we need more options for our teachers.  Together we are building them.

New Teaching Strategies & New Professional Development for Our Teachers

In addition to new outcomes for students and new assessments that measure them, we are rethinking how we teach.  Our students are so dramatically different than we were and we know so much more now than we ever have before regarding the best ways to create sustainable learning – learning that sticks and requires no remediation.  In fact, DCSD registered the lowest college remediation rate in three years.  We also understand many of our teachers were trained for yesterday – before we had this understanding so it is our responsibility to create the opportunities for them to learn new ways to facilitate learning for our students.  As a result, we have completely reinvented our professional development courses.  All courses we offer today both model a World Class learning environment and teach our teachers how to be World Class instructors. 

New Evaluation Instruments for All Employees – Specific to the Work they do for Our Students

As you can see, we have reimagined and through teacher leadership, reinvented the core of our work – what we teach, how we know if our students have learned, and how we teach.  Many times, I have seen districts tinker with one piece or part of their districts and they run into all of the unintended consequences associated with not approaching change systemically.  Our plan for change is systemic and our implementation has been as well.  As a result, our teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, psychologists, and many others have worked with us to create 20 differentiated versions of our new evaluation instrument called CITE. 

We haven’t just created new outcomes, new assessments, new professional development and more.  We have integrated all of this into our new evaluations for all staff.  We have gone from simple and a bit ambiguous evaluation instruments to rigorous, specific evaluation instruments.  The top performers on our old instrument may well be only partially effective on our new instrument. They did not get worse; instead, we changed the expectations – we moved the goal 50 yards down the field, and we know that with some of the most talented teachers in the country focused on what is best for students, they will definitely reach these new goals. 

New Professional Pay for All Staff

You probably heard that we have moved to both market-based pay and pay for performance.  What this means is that for all new staff to DCSD (all current staff are grandfathered in and no one will ever take a pay reduction), they are hired based on their market value.  In the past, everyone was hired on the same scale – an outdated scale that simply asked for years of service and degrees earned.  That scale has not worked for a while, and as a result, districts have tried to pay people “off step” to accommodate the problems.  We felt that we needed a cleaner and more transparent approach.  We believe that education professionals deserve professional pay.   We knew it was time for an overhaul to fix our pay system.         

Our market pay bands for new employees are based on supply and demand of position.  For example, when we advertise for calculus teachers, we often get only a handful of quality applicants.  On the other hand, when we advertise for physical education teachers, we receive hundreds of quality applicants.  Even though this has been the case for quite some time, we were supposed to pay them roughly the same to come to our district. When this didn’t work, districts (including ours) employed an ambiguous category “hard to fill” as an option to pay more.  Keep in mind that when someone comes to our district, we have never seen them teach, so we want to pay them based on their market value as they come in the door, and then put increases in their compensation completely in their hands.  We have done this through our new pay for performance system. 

This system uses a body of evidence collected from our new evaluation instruments and our new student assessments to show if a staff member is highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective.  Highly effective staffs (staff that are most effective with our students) earn the largest raises.  Smaller raises are available for effective and partially effective.  Ineffective staff will earn no increase in compensation. 

We want the best teachers in Colorado and beyond to call Douglas County School District home and then we want to treat them as professionals by putting their compensation in their hands.  Those who are great with our students will earn the most.  It never made sense to me when I was a high school science teacher that everyone got the same pay and the same raise regardless of our performance.  Many teachers have shared that they feel the same way. 

Other Important Accomplishments

In addition to hundreds of teachers working together with district leadership to build systems of the future for our students, we have accomplished a few other notable items.    

  • We have established a fiscally healthy budget that lives within its means.
  • We have ended the practice of funding our legally required, TABOR reserve with a letter of credit and are now funding it with cash.
  • We have established a healthy 3% reserve and 1% contingency for unexpected budget items.
  • We have dramatically reduced central administration costs – about $1 M in salaries alone.
  • We have increased the percentage of dollars going to our classrooms over the past two years.
  • We have ended the technology fee to our parents.
  • We have lowered class sizes in our high schools and maintained electives.
  • We have added dollars back to our elementary and middle schools.
  • We have preserved middle school teaming.
  • We do not have any employee furlough days.
  • We have preserved school and department savings and committed to never taking those for district use.
  • We have phased out the extended service severance that was paying teachers leaving the district approximately $40,000 and moved that $2.2 M to fund current employee compensation.
  • We have stopped paying the salaries, benefits, PERA, stipends, and expenses of union officers who were not teaching in the classroom.
  • We have ended an unfunded and unbudgeted sick leave practice that endangered the health of the district budget and replaced it with funded and budgeted short-term disability insurance for all employees.
  • We have covered all PERA (retirement/pension) increases for all employees. The district currently contributes 17.5% on behalf of employees to their retirement and the employee contributes 8%.  This was in addition to the severance program mentioned above. 
  • We gave the largest compensation increase on the Front Range for FY 2013 (the current school year)
  • We have saved over $15 M in utility costs over 6 years and redistributed those dollars to our schools.
  • We are one of 14 districts nationally to earn the Green Ribbon Award as a district for our energy efficiency that has supported our economic efficiency efforts.
  • We implemented the personally owned devices initiative (POD) that allows students to bring their own devices to school, log on to our network, and use their devices in their learning.
  • We are implementing additional safety and security measures to our already excellent school safety program – scaffolding of safety to keep our students safe.

-Elementary/Middle School Marshal Program
-Safety Committee
-Facility Enhancements
-No-Cost WIFI Sharing and Officers doing Reports in our Parking Lots and Lunch with our Students

  • We have implemented the strategic device allocation that stops computer rotations of the past and instead provides schools with an opportunity to select from a menu of devices that support the units teachers have built.
  • We have implemented the following community relations strategies to get you the communication you want the way you want to receive it:
    • -District Mobile App – in both iTunes Store and Google Play
      -Doug TV
      -Two Radio Shows per week
      -Telephone Townhalls
      -New Website – Phase 1 completed and Phase 2 coming soon
      -TV Station
      -Updated Newsline
      -Updated THINK
  • We are in the process of building a system that will support our teachers in implementing World Class education. 

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    We have used performance contracting and other innovative means to meet some of our district capital needs without asking for additional dollars.

  • We have built programs with several universities to create a few, of our many, career pathways for DCSD staff who aspire to take on the next level. Since our plan for change is a leader in the nation, we are establishing graduate programs in leadership that will be held in DCSD and taught by DCSD leaders.

There are other accomplishments too numerous to mention, so I will stop there.  If you would like to know more, please do visit our website, www.dcsdk12.org

Rumors

I often visit with various DCSD stakeholders – parents, community members, etc.  Recently, folks have come to me with some questions regarding rumors they have heard in their communities.  In almost every instance, the parent or community member has encouraged me to send out a communication dispelling these myths saying that would be, “…very helpful.”  Below are the most prominent myths accompanied with the related factual information.

MYTH – District achievement has dropped. 
FACT – District graduation rates, drop-out rates, remediation rates, and other traditional achievement measures have improved. 

MYTH – DCSD has lost its Accredited with Distinction Rating due to declining achievement.  FACT – DCSD did not lose its rating as a result of lower achievement.  CDE rewrote the rules for earning that rating, and DCSD is proudly accredited under the new system and new rules.  It is misleading to imply that DCSD’s achievement has declined, and therefore, DCSD lost a rating.  Actually DCSD’s achievement has improved.  In fact, no large Denver-area districts earned “accredited with distinction” ratings after the new rules were established.  More importantly, DCSD holds itself to higher and better standards than CDE.  We have different, and more important goals that exceed their expectations.

MYTH – All DCSD schools are forced to choose a focus. 
FACT – No DCSD school is required to have a focus.  We are committed to choice.  However, we definitely support our schools and their communities as they openly and transparently communicate with parents regarding the learning opportunities in their schools.  We want to be excellent partners with parents as they select the perfect school for their children.  Often the perfect school is their neighborhood school, and we are thrilled about that.  Sometimes that is not the perfect fit, and we only expect that our schools openly communicate what it’s like to learn at their schools so parents are empowered to make the best choice with the most information available. Historically, many parents have found it difficult to navigate the education system, and we are committed to making it easy to find the perfect fit for your child.

MYTH – Lots of DCSD teachers are leaving the district. 
FACT – DCSD has traditionally maintained about a 10% attrition rate.  This year and last year were no different than the past several years preceding them.  With the phase out of the severance program, some teachers are choosing to retire.  In addition, some teachers are less interested in changing outcomes, assessments, and strategies that are best for digital native students.  There is no question that the re-imagination and reinvention of American education and its implementation is not for everyone, and DCSD supports every single employee in finding the perfect fit for them – just as we believe in choice and fit for our students.    

MYTH – DCSD had an obligation to pay the extended service severance program (ESS), as it was an obligation related to retirement funds. 
FACT – DCSD pays 17.5% annually into PERA for every single DCSD employee — toward a very generous retirement system.  The ESS began in 2009 (only 4 years ago), was a year-to-year contractual obligation, could be terminated at any time through negotiations (when we had teacher union negotiations), and was a $2.2 M annual budget item.  DCSD still contributes the entire employer part of a generous retirement system (though it could legally charge employees for a small part of it).  The ESS was in addition to that and did not make sense when teachers who were here teaching our students were not receiving compensation increases, and ESS teachers were receiving more in one payment than some teachers make in an entire year, to leave our district. 

MYTH – DCSD took away the sick leave bank and now employees have no option for getting through a difficult time. 
FACT – DCSD had a sick leave bank that was not properly funded and not budgeted.  With our commitment to a healthy budget, DCSD worked to fix this by implementing a funded and budgeted short term disability benefit for all employees.  This benefit gives employees tax free dollars during a challenging time.  Employees are also able to increase their short term disability insurance amounts for only dollars a month. 

MYTH – DCSD has an $80 M or $66 M fund balance that could be spent for teachers, to lower class size, etc. 
FACT – DCSD has the legally required $13 M TABOR reserve that cannot be spent, a 3% reserve required by board policy, and a 1% board required contingency.  Beyond those, DCSD had $2-3 M of a $500 M budget not assigned that can be used for needs.  We have adopted a commitment and a practice of spending only the money we have – on-going money for on-going costs and one-time money on one-time costs.  As a result of this commitment, when we have saved money on utilities savings or other items, we have immediately allocated those dollars out to our schools and to our staff. 

MYTH – The DCSD Board of Education operates in secret executive sessions.  
FACT – The Board of Education does meet in executive session to negotiate real estate deals, discuss personnel issues, and seek legal advice.  Topics for these sessions are posted for the public in advance.  The Board of Education and DCSD is committed to transparency.  In fact, sunshinereview.org recently rated DCSD among the highest districts in Colorado with an A- rating.  In addition, DCSD posts all financial and budget information on-line, posts audio recordings of Board of Education meetings, and provides multiple communication forums to discuss district initiatives and news.

Sincerely,

Liz Fagen

P.S.  Please join me and my team on Wednesday evening May 8th at 6:00 p.m. for a live Telephone Townhall.  This is an opportunity to ask questions and receive updates about the school district.  Anybody is welcome to participate, and may do so by calling 877-228-2184, and entering the passcode 19350.