Jason Glass Was a Disaster for Jeffco Schools

After three years as Jeffco’s Superintendent of Schools, Jason Glass terminated his contract five years early to become Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education.

Good riddance. Academically and financially, he has been a disaster for the district.

His “Jeffco Generations” vision document was an unambitious and confusing mix of buzzwords and unprioritized goals that ignored both resource constraints and critical uncertainties (see my columns on medium.com).

Glass later announced 26 simultaneous, unprioritized initiatives to achieve his goals, despite the advice by Deliver-Ed (a consulting firm he hired) that Jeffco should only focus on three.

Having done corporate turnarounds, I noted then that these initiatives lacked both rigorous metrics and cost estimates, and that 26 of them would quickly overwhelm Jeffco’s organizational implementation capacity.

I also criticized Glass’ refusal to pilot his “Deeper Learning” initiative before imposing it on 84,000 kids, many of who still weren’t reading or doing math at grade level.

I predicted all these initiatives would fail to deliver even the modest improvements Glass promised, just as a similar approach had failed when he was superintendent of Eagle County Schools. And that’s just what has happened.

Since he arrived, Jeffco’s MAP, CMAS, and SAT scores have all declined.

In our educated, affluent district, 44% of 3rd grade students NOT eligible for free/reduced lunch failed to meet state reading standards on the 2019 CMAS. 55% of 6th grade students failed to meet state math standards. And 53% of 8th grade students failed to meet state science standards. Predictive results from the Winter 2019/20 MAP assessment forecasted further declines in 2020 had CMAS not been cancelled.

This year’s district Unified Improvement Plan bleakly noted that, “Jeffco students generally are performing lower on the CMAS items that require more critical thinking and problem-solving (writing, modeling and reasoning).”

That’s no way to prepare our kids for the 21st century economy.

The results for the 30% of Jeffco students who are eligible for free/reduced lunch are far worse, despite Glass and the board’s alleged support for “equity.”

Tragically, few Jeffco kids who have fallen behind will ever catch up to academic proficiency; under Glass, the district’s annual student achievement growth is now BELOW the state average.

Jeffco receives over a billion tax dollars each year, and its financial management is also a mess.

While both achievement results and the number of students in district run schools have been falling, since Glass arrived Jeffco has added 338 head office staff, and increased head office costs by $48 million, to $267 million in the proposed 2020/21 budget (about $3,700/student, or $92,500 per 25 student classroom).

Jeffco claims it uses “Budgeting for Outcomes” to manage head office costs. But after talking with BFO’s inventor, David Osborne, about this process, it seems clear to me that, contrary to what Jeffco says to bond investors and in its annual report, the district is not really using it.

Teachers’ use of personal and sick days is also at a record under Glass. In 2017/18 (the last data I could obtain from the district) it reached 41,300 days (equivalent to 223 no-show teachers, based on 185 contract work days/year). Moreover, the most recent federal data shows that 1,130 Jeffco teachers (22%) are chronically absent, using 10 or more sick and personal days each year with a significant negative impact on student achievement (how much do your kids learn from a sub?).

Jeffco’s capital program also appears to be out of control (and I say this as the former CEO of a process engineering company that built large projects).

The materials the district showed voters during the 2018 5B bond campaign said the $705 million capital plan would have a backstop program contingency of $86 million to absorb cost overruns, on top of a 10% contingency on each school project. Although the capital program is still far from complete, thus far about $100 million of program contingency has already been used on top of all the project contingency funds.

Yet commercial construction costs in Denver have only risen by about 3% per year since the bond was passed — it boggles the mind to see cost overruns of this magnitude (e.g., 77% on the Alameda High School project, despite a substantial reduction in the size of the school).

The excess cost overruns above the budgeted $86 million program contingency have been covered by using $50 million in bond premium (additional money raised because interest rates were lower than anticipated).

However, the Jeffco board never voted to use the premium for this purpose (instead of, say, replacing or making further improvements to older schools with large populations of at-risk and minority students). So who approved adding $50 million to the program contingency? Jason’s approval authority was only $500,000.

Even worse, program contingency funds have also been used for projects that were never disclosed to the public, like new artificial turf athletic fields for affluent West Jefferson Middle School. So much for “equity”.

This also suggests that the governance committees created by the board and charged with oversight of Jeffco’s internal controls (the Financial Oversight and Audit Committees) and its capital program (the Capital Asset Advisory Committee, as specified in the 5B ballot language) have either been misled by district management or derelict in performing their duties. They need to explain their failures to the public.

Does all this make you angry? It should.

Management responsibility for Jeffco’s terrible academic and financial performance ultimately lies on the heads of the district’s senior leaders: Superintendent Glass, Deputy Superintendent Kristopher Schuh, Chief Academic Officer Matt Flores, Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell, Chief Strategy Officer Tom McDermott, and Chief Financial Officer Kathleen Askelson.

All of them need to go, not just Glass and Askelson, who announced her retirement this summer. It’s time to clean house.

Jeffco has some very talented team members, and we give them a billion tax dollars every year to educate our children. But for far too long, the district’s potential has been undermined by its poor management, weak governance, and dysfunctional culture.

For the sake of our children’s future in what will almost certainly be a very challenging economy, I hope the next superintendent will have the courage and public support needed to make long overdue changes, and return Jeffco to the high performing district it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tom Coyne is a business executive and former member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee. His wife, Susan Miller, was elected to the Jeffco Board of Education last November. These are solely his views.

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