Does Jeffco’s New Supe, Tracy Dorland, Face an Impossible Challenge?

Located in Denver’s affluent, educated western suburbs, Jefferson County Public Schools is the nation’s 37th largest school district, with more than a billion dollars in annual revenue to serve around 84,000 students (the pandemic has created substantial uncertainty about how many students will return to the district when classes start in August).

Tracy Dorland, Jeffco’s newly appointed CEO (Superintendent in K-12 speak), starts her job on Monday, April 19, 2021.

She has never been a CEO before, and I can say from experience that nothing anyone has done in their past fully prepares them for their first time in this role.

That is exponentially more so the case if you are a first time turnaround CEO, walking into a failing organization with multiple stakeholders counting on you to fix it.

Dorland faces many daunting challenges, as I outline below. But let’s first ask perhaps the most critical question of all: What happens if Jeffco, and thousands of school districts across the nation, don’t succeed in substantially improving results?

Improving K-12 Results: What’s Really at Stake?

The answer to that question begins with the evolution of the 21st century economy, a process that COVID has sharply accelerated.

Organizations perform activities to achieve their goals. Performing those activities costs money. With the arrival of the industrial revolution, it became possible for some activities to be performed more effectively and efficiently through the application of new technologies, like electricity and railroads.

However, the productivity improvements, faster economic growth, and rising living standards this made possible weren’t fully realized until human capital improved (via the expansion of public education) and organizations adopted new designs to make full use of new technological and human capabilities.

That is the very short story of the Industrial Revolution.

And now we’re here again, as the Industrial Economy gives way to the Digital Economy.

Fundamentally, it’s the same story — lots of promising new technology, with benefits that will only be fully realized when human capital and organization designs both improve.

Let’s look at a more specific example. Like an organization, a “job” can be described as a set of activities (which can be further subdivided into tasks) that an individual must perform to attain an objective through the use of their knowledge, skills, and experience.

One of the key developments in the 21st century economy is exponential improvements in technologies that allow the automation of physical and cognitive activities and business processes (think robotics and artificial intelligence).

At the job level, this means that some tasks and activities previously performed by human labor can now be performed by technology. For example, artificial intelligence technologies have led to the automation of a range of information collection, analysis, prediction, and classification, and routine decision-making tasks.

In some cases, this has led to the elimination of jobs, especially those previously termed “middle management”. But in many more cases, the automation of routine activities has led to a change in the nature of the job itself, with greater focus on physical, social, and cognitive activities that could not be automated.

In many cases, humans need higher levels of knowledge and skill to perform this new set of activities to the required standard.

But what happens when there is a shortage of people with this knowledge and skills?

We can see the answer all around us today.

Because of the rapid scaling that is possible in a digital economy, companies that can attract scarce talent can adopt advanced technologies and grow much faster than their competitors, whose profit margins shrink as they fall further behind and struggle to survive.

In the labor market, this has led to both offshoring of operations to lower costs, and outsourcing of activities to temporary “gig” workers who are poorly paid and receive minimal or no employee health and retirement benefits.

At the level of the national economy, it has led to lower labor productivity and a slower rate of growth in the size of the overall economic pie.

The pandemic has accelerated many of these trends, and exposed more well-paid workers to global competition. As the Financial Times recently noted, “if you can do your job from anywhere [thanks to Zoom and other technologies], then someone from anywhere can do your job.”

Meanwhile, the companies that can attract the scarce talent can afford to pay them more, which worsens income inequality.

And what happens to those people who lack the advanced knowledge and skills required for well-paying jobs?

In our increasingly unequal economy, spending by people at the higher end has driven the expansion of multiple service industries. These jobs have changed too, with many requiring higher levels of knowledge and skill than in the past. But because of the high degree of competition in many service businesses, revenues are always under pressure, pay is low, and benefits are often non-existent.

In sum, as we transition from the Industrial to the Digital Economy, the mismatch between the rate at which human capital and technologies are improving has led to worsening inequality, the shrinkage of the middle class, and the creation of a rapidly growing “precariat”.

In turn, this has led to rapidly rising government spending on various social safety net programs (which has crowded out spending in other areas), and rising social and political conflict.

And all these trends will only grow worse if the average quality of human capital doesn’t grow much more quickly. And that won’t happen unless America’s K-12 results substantially improve.

So failing to meet the challenges facing school district Superintendents across the United States will have much greater consequences than many of them likely realize.

The Challenges Facing Tracy Dorland in Jeffco

Recovering COVID Learning Losses

  • Based on what has been presented to the board, district management does not appear to have developed a detailed plan for recovering student learning losses.
  • The district’s website advertises traditional “credit recovery” summer programs, but not the intensive summer tutoring that will be used in states like Massachusetts to address the needs of students who are furthest behind.
  • The district throws around terms like “MTSS” (Muti-Tiered System of Supports), but shows no evidence of a rigorous process for choosing the most cost effective interventions to implement it.
  • There is no activity based analysis of the cost of implementing learning loss recovery programs (e.g., tutoring, small groups).
  • The district’s budget presentations have not separately broken out the costs and goals of its plan to recover students’ learning losses, or how it plans to spend the federal and state aid it will receive for this purpose. In fact, Jeffco appears to be violating every single one of the best practices identified by the Georgetown University Edunomics Lab’s Marguerite Roza:

Addressing Students’ Mental Health Needs

  • At board meetings, district management gives the impression that addressing students’ mental health needs is more important than recovering their learning losses.
  • Yet district management has provided no evidence to support its claims that the pandemic has vastly increased students’ mental health challenges.
  • We have base rate, pre-pandemic data for national prevalence and severity rates among students for various clinical mental health diagnoses. Jeffco appears to be unaware of this, much less have any evidence to support their claims that prevalence and severity have sharply increased.
  • Just as in the case of MTSS and recovering learning losses, there is no activity-based analysis of the projected cost of addressing student mental health issues.
  • Nor is there an analysis of how well Jeffco’s mix of internal resources with various clinical qualifications (e.g., psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, school counselor) match up against an activity based analysis of student’s expected needs for clinical interventions. And in the absence of that, it is impossible to accurately estimate the need for partnering with outside mental health organizations, much less establish MOU’s and contracts to provide these supports. In short, Jeffco is trying to kick the can down a very short road.

Declining Student Achievement in Jeffco

  • I have extensively written about Jeffco’s dismal achievement results over the past 11 years since we moved to Jeffco from Alberta, which has one of the world’s highest performing K-12 systems (based on PISA scores). E.g., here.
  • Over the last 11 years, the number of Jeffco “graduates” who failed to meet all the college and career ready standards on the ACT or SAT now approaches the seating capacity at Coors Field.
  • I have also noted Jeffco’s terrible track record in catching up children who have fallen behind back to proficiency by the time they graduate.
  • At the last board meeting, Jeffco management showed this graphic, which speaks volumes about this billion dollar organization’s inability and/or unwillingness to make tough changes (including firing people) to improve student achievement results.
  • The hard hitting series of investigative reports by Ann Schimke from Chalkbeat highlighted the ongoing disaster of literacy instruction in Jeffco that continues 12 years after the READ Act passed.
  • And Jeffco’s math results are much worse…but nobody wants to talk about that.

Jeffco’s Financial Management is Weak, and Its Budget is Out of Control

  • Compared to best practice in the private sector (and indeed, even in K-12), Jeffco’s annual budgeting process is shockingly poor.
  • It only focuses on the allocation of incremental revenues, and implicitly assumes that the rest of its billion-dollar budget is being used as efficiently and effectively as possible. Think about that — and find a CFO of a billion dollar public company who would agree with it.
  • Activity based cost management is absent. Though the district claims it uses “Budgeting for Outcomes” CORA requests for the underlying analysis lead to references to the wholly inadequate language in the annual budget document. And never forget that David Osborne, who invented BFO and was brought in by Dan McMinimee to implement it in Jeffco was dismissed by Jason Glass. Jeffco’s claim that it uses BFO is at best naive and at worst deliberately deceptive.
  • Under Jason Glass overhead spending grew by $48 million while achievement results declined at an accelerating rate.

Jeffco’s Capital Improvement Program is Also Out of Control

  • It is now more than $100 million over budget after just two of its planned six years.
  • I have published two analyses of its shortcomings, along with an enormous amount of supporting evidence.
  • Robert Greenawalt has also published detailed analyses, also with great amounts of supporting evidence.
  • And the Colorado Community Media newspapers have now begun to publish a series of investigative reports on the CIP. Other media may soon follow.
  • The problems of the Capital Improvement Program are a microcosm of Jeffco’s poor management, weak governance, and toxic culture.

Jeffco Talks A Lot About “Equity” But Behaves Just the Opposite

  • For 20 years the district has paid lip service to the need to improve achievement results in the articulation areas with the highest percentages of students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch. And it has repeatedly failed to do so.
  • Even worse, it has refused to convert these failing schools to charters or to accept outside help to turn them around. For example, Jason Glass turned down a fully financed offer from Empower Schools (which famously turned around Lawrence MA schools, and was the only group endorsed by CDE during the search for an outside organization to takeover the Adams 14 district) to turn around the Jefferson Articulation Area.
  • More recently, apparently without obtaining any other approvals, the Jeffco Facilities Department decided to eliminate the Stride community health clinic that has been located in the Alameda 6–12 facility for 23 years (!). Like Jefferson, this articulation area also has a high percentage of FRL eligible students. And building “community schools” (e.g., with integrated health clinics) is one of the 26 initiatives to implement the Jeffco Generations vision!
  • Last week the district suddenly closed high FRL Allendale Elementary School, while(as it did a couple of years ago when closing high FRL Pleasant View ES) callously failing to follow the district’s specified policy (FCB-R) for closing schools, and then lying to the board about it. This week, the district’s coverup will likely get worse — and more public.
  • Even as the district delayed planned Capital Improvement Program spending on high FRL schools, it has spent more than $50 million on athletic field and track projects at affluent schools that were not disclosed to voters during the Prop 5B campaign in 2018 (and remember, the 2016 bond proposal was rejected by the voters in part because of the heavy spending on athletic facilities it proposed).
  • Most recently, even as it was throwing poor kids and families under the bus, district management has proposed to spend up to $35 million on a new Olympic Quality Natatorium in affluent West Arvada. Note too that this would be the first time that the school district balance sheet would be used for such a purpose. Other recreation districts (e.g., Foothills, Lakewood, Wheat Ridge, Evergreen) have spent their own money to build their athletic facilities, and Arvada voters have already rejected a proposal for them to fund this gold-plated pool. Even worse, Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell has said that paying for the pool would require an increase in the size of the annual transfer from the district’s General Fund to its Capital Fund. In practical terms, this means Bell proposes to take money out of every classroom in the district in order to pay for a gold plated Olympic Natatorium for the affluent folks in West Arvada (Olympic quality means 50m lanes instead of the 25m lanes at your local rec center, a separate diving well with post-dive spa pools, etc.). Dorland has been handed a poisoned chalice. Expect this issue to blow up in public too, and quite possibly take Dorland down with it, along with board members Harmon, Rupert, Schooley, and Rush (all of whom seem to support this).

Jeffco’s Strategy is a Disaster

  • As I have written extensively elsewhere (see multiple articles on this on my Medium page), Jason Glass’s “Jeffco Generations” strategy has been a disaster — just as I predicted it would be.
  • In ten years of District Unified Improvement Plans, the same root causes keep coming up, others are never addressed, and performance improvement initiatives always fail.

Jeffco’s CTE Programs are Pathetic

  • They are weak, and poorly coordinated across schools and with statewide programs like CareerWise
  • Jeffco’s attitude towards employers can be summed up like this: “It is your privilege to work with Jeffco. Do what we say.”
  • In 2018 Prop 5A increased the Mill Levy, with the promise that a percentage of these new funds would be used to pay for expanded STEM and CTE programs in Jeffco. They mostly weren’t. Instead a substantial portion of these operating funds were diverted to the capital fund to pay for cost overruns at Warren Tech South.

Jeffco Schools Dysfunctional Organization has Created an Insular Toxic Culture

  • When Jason Glass arrived, he hired an outside consulting firm (DeliverEd) to assess the district. Their report painted a picture of a dysfunctional organization, consistent with what I once heard a district manager say — “Superintendents and boards come and go, but Jeffco goes on the same.” Under Jason Glass, nothing changed.
  • Through the 1990s, Jeffco’s performance steadily declined. At the end of the decade, after a national search, Jane Hammond became Superintendent. She had previously been the Supe of two other high performing districts in Washington and on the East Coast. She made many changes, and did her best to build public support for them, that led to passage of a national award winning “Performance Mill Levy Increase” that tied increasing community tax support for the district to improving achievement results.
  • For the first year, achievement and tax revenues increased. Then in 2001 Hammond was fired in a midnight coup (apparently for having made too many changes and ruffled the feathers of Jeffco’s “old guard”). Her deputy, Cindy Stevenson became Supe and reigned (and I do mean reigned) over the district until 2014. Achievement improvement ceased, and stagnated for the next 20 years. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Under Jason Glass, it began an accelerating three year decline.
  • According to the most recent data from the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Education, 24% of Jeffco teachers use more than 10 personal and sick days each year (out of a 185 day contract year), which is the point at which teacher absences begin to have a significant negative impact on student achievement. Data from Jeffco show that a preponderance of these absences occur on Mondays and Fridays.
  • On the other hand, Jeffco’s culture of bullying and blaming also affects teachers. While I disagree with the teachers union on many issues, you would never confuse Jeffco management’s treatment of teachers with what you see in other professional services firms. And district management treats JESPA even worse.
  • Jeffco’s complacent, old-boy (and girl), change-resistant culture (which Stevenson further reinforced) defeated both Dan McMinimee and Jason Glass, who came from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
  • Today, with a few exceptions (e.g., Susan Leach, Tom McDermott, and Julie Wilkens, all of whom came from outside Colorado), Jeffco’s senior leaders are all Peter-Principled products of the insular Stevenson culture. For many of them, the K-12 world outside of Jeffco doesn’t exist.
  • Don’t believe me? Ask any of them for the names of the three highest performing K-12 systems in the world that they most admire, and what their understanding is of the integrated set of policies and practices that drive their superior performance. I’ve done that many times, and (with one or two exceptions over 10 years) gotten nothing but blank stares. That’s what Tracy Dorland is facing on Monday, April 19th. Alone .
  • As I have written, anybody experienced in turnarounds (as Michael Bennet was when he became Denver’s Supe) would immediately see that major changes are needed to attack Jeffco’s organizational and other deeply rooted problems. It remains to be seen whether Dorland has the desire, courage, and mental toughness required to meet this challenge.

Conclusion

Judging from some of the comments she has made since her appointment was announced, it isn’t clear that Tracy Dorland sees Jeffco as a failing billion-dollar organization in desperate need of what must be an extremely difficult turnaround.

If she doesn’t, and presides over Jeffco’s continued decline, the district’s children will pay a very high price in the 21st century economy. And Dorland may find herself branded a failure and out of a job. Given Jeffco’s track record over the past 20 years (and the experiences of Hammond, McMinimee, and Glass), that unfortunately must be the base case forecast.

But if Dorland does see herself as a turnaround CEO in the mold of Michael Bennet, I’ll offer her one piece of advice. Over the past 40 years, I’ve been involved (as a banker, consultant, CFO, and CEO) in a lot of turnarounds, including more than one billion dollar organization. Across all of them, one thing has been constant.

When they were over, and the men and women who led them were asked about the most important lesson they’d learned, their answer was always the same: “I wish I’d made the tough people decisions earlier.”

Tom Coyne is a business executive who has invested 20 years of volunteer time in the cause of K-12 performance improvement in New England, Alberta, and Colorado. He is a former member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee, and former Chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee. His wife, Susan Miller, was elected to the Jeffco Board of Education in November 2019. These are solely Coyne’s views.

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Co-Founder, K12 Accountability Inc. New book: "K-12 On the Brink: Why America's Education System Fails to Improve, and Only Business Leadership Can Fix It"

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Tom Coyne

Tom Coyne

Co-Founder, K12 Accountability Inc. New book: "K-12 On the Brink: Why America's Education System Fails to Improve, and Only Business Leadership Can Fix It"

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