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Citizens group puts pressure on Payler, Simone backs super on scores

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By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — For the second time in a little more than two weeks, a group of “concerned citizens” went before Fort Lupton school board members June 26 calling for the resignation of Weld Re-8 Superintendent Mark Payler, based on what they said is a continued lack of student achievement.

The Concerned Citizens for the Education of our Students (CCES) went before the board June 9, and again June 26, with an “opinion petition” signed by more than 700 Fort Lupton residents and parents that the group said are in favor of ousting the district’s director.

Former educator, school board member and longtime Fort Lupton resident Rosalie Martinez, who is spearheading the effort along with former school board members Vicky Montoya, Gary Alvarado and others, said they have myriad concerns about the state of education in Fort Lupton, not the least of which includes a recent D-minus school rating report.

Payler addressed that school rating report — which he said “generated a considerable amount of conversation on social media” — in an article published on the district’s website May 15.

In that article, Payler urges parents and residents to take into account the fact that the rating is based on academic data from the spring of 2013 — not from the most recent class of students — and said the district’s administration had already addressed many concerns prior to the start of the 2013-14 academic year.

“Keep in mind that these independent rating sites lag a year behind in where they obtain their data,” he wrote. “Their data source is NOT from this year’s (standardized test) scores.

“… The core data is from over a year ago, and not reflective of the current administration’s effort to increase student success,” he added, noting the administration implemented a “number of research-based efforts to address … our high school’s academic progress” prior to the start of the last academic year.

And at a June 16 Fort Lupton City Council meeting, and again June 26 at the district building, Weld Re-8 Board President and former Firestone mayor Mike Simone gave a presentation of “independently gathered” data he said also dispels the claims of CCES and their supporters.

“He’s had long enough”

Martinez, Montoya and Alvarado said they all have enough experience in education, and in business to know when something isn’t working.

Alvarado, who served in the Korean Conflict and boasts nearly four decades experience with tech giant IBM and serving or volunteering within the district, compared the Fort Lupton schools to a corporation. He said, when a corporation is failing, the blame almost always falls on the CEO who, in this case, is Payler.

“I worked … for 38 years with some of the best managers in the world: the military, the company I worked for, and right here, when I was a board member for 12 years,” he told the board June 26. “The biggest problem in this district … is the main person in charge who is responsible for anything, and everything, that goes on within a company.”

Martinez has leveled a litany of complaints against Payler, and said she and the 734 residents who signed her petition believe he is responsible for the district’s low graduation rates (about 74 percent in 2014), low assessment scores and low teacher and student morale, all of which they claim cause parents to send their children to surrounding districts and leaving quality teachers no choice but to relocate.

“This is not a personal vendetta,” Martinez told board members June 9.

Rather, at the June 9 meeting and again in an interview at her home June 25, Martinez said she has tired of excuses she’s hearing from the board and in the community, including complaints that the district’s disparity between white students and Hispanics — particularly “English-language learners” — is hindering the district’s ability to progress academically.

“There are people in the community who believe that the reason Fort Lupton can’t get test scores up is because we have a lot of English language-learners, children who need special assistance learning English,” she told board members June 9.

But at her home June 25, Martinez pointed to a pile of published articles showing other schools — particularly those schools in Weld Re-1 district — that were progressing despite what she said were nearly identical demographics.

“If they can do it, we can, too,” she said.

Martinez and Montoya on June 25 also questioned the district’s efforts to address English language-learners’ needs and the district’s commitment to hiring Hispanic teachers and administrators reflective of the district’s high Hispanic enrollment.

“I heard no mention (from the board) of how to meet the language needs of students,” Martinez said. “And a lady next to me (at the June 9 meeting) wanted to know how many Hispanic teachers we have left in the district and how many Hispanic administrators,” Montoya added.

As for Montoya, the former eight-year board member who ran against Simone for a school board seat in the last election, she said the request to have Payler resign is based on results — or a lack thereof.

“Everybody deserves a chance to see if they can turn this district around,” she told board members June 9. “We were failing when Mr. Payler started and we’ve continued to do that for 10 years now. 

“Maybe it’s time for a change? I think it is,” she added.

Contradicting data

Part of Simone’s June 26 presentation included information comparing Hispanic and “Anglo” academic achievement, as well as percentages of Hispanic teachers and administrators in the district — information he said was in response to complaints from CCES and other residents, and data that he said dispels those complaints.

“We’re a data-driven, research-driven board, and we’ve heard the comments, so we wanted to go and find out if those comments were true,” he said June 26. “Some of the comments were that the school district has been neglecting the Hispanic children and that their test scores were actually lower than everybody else’s. The data didn’t show that.”

According to what Simone said was data straight from the Colorado Department of Education, over the past decade or so, scores for both demographics are on the rise with the exception of white students’ writing scores, which have declined about 8 percent.

What’s most telling of the district’s approach to English-language learners and Hispanics in the district, according to Simone, are figures that show a 330-percent increase in Hispanic math scores, as well as a 56-percent and 50-percent upshot in reading and writing scores, respectively.

He said, across the board, scores are not where he and other board members or administrators would like them, but said the figures do show “steady improvement” since 1998, and are considerably better than data from previous decade, when Simone said the district’s test scores “bottomed out.” He added that Weld Re-8’s rankings are, on a whole, equal to or better than many districts of similar size and demographic makeup.

Simone also said the recent inclusion of Quest Academy as an official school within the district will also help boost scores even more, as that charter school’s “achievement scores are that good.”

As for numbers regarding Hispanic staff within the district, Simone’s presentation showed what he said were figures comparable to or better than many districts in the state.

He said, overall, Colorado schools have a Hispanic population of 32 percent, with Hispanics making up about 8 percent of the state’s professional staff. In Weld Re-8, he said more than 70 percent of the students are Hispanic, and said the professional staff numbers are about even with those enrollment figures at more than 17 percent, or 31 teachers who self-classify as Hispanic.

Simone suggested that a more-legitimate demographic concern was not race, but socioeconomics. He said more than 70 percent of the district at or below the poverty level, and that is likely a primary cause for lack of achievement in students.

Ultimately, Simone said in the June 9 meeting and again in a June 13 email that Payler’s opponents have failed to provide any information showing Payler to have breached his contract or broken the law. Simone said that lack of evidence, coupled with statistics comparing the district’s achievements in terms of demographics, leave Payler’s opponents with “nothing to hang their hat on.”

In his email, Simone said he believes the motives of many Payler critics are based on personal grudges relating to employment opportunities and failed attempts at securing board seats.

“After talking long enough to (Gary Montoya, Alvarado and Martinez), they revealed, in my opinion, their true motives,” he said.

“It’s not about race”

The group of about 20 residents who came to the June 26 meeting — most of them Hispanic — took exception with what they said was Simone’s undue focus on race.

CCES supporters contest their complaints have nothing to do with “ethnicity or race,” but are leveled at the district’s performance as a whole.

“We have said repeatedly that this is not about any one ethnic group,” Martinez told the board June 26, after commending Simone for his “comprehensive presentation.”

Others felt the presentation and the data wherein was skewed.

“We’ve all worked with spin doctors … and that information sounds like it’s being spun,” said Gary Montoya. And Alvarado accused Simone of using racial comparisons to “take the spotlight off the real issue.”

“I don’t like that. I wasn’t born yesterday,” Alvarado chided. “When you mentioned Hispanics so many times (in the presentation), it turned me off.”

Rudy Vasquez, former Fort Lupton High School baseball coach, said Simone’s comments were “disrespectful” and said the board president’s attitude was one more reason why his children “may not attend this school district.”

“For you to speak to us in the manner you did is very disrespectful,” he said. “You are way out of line.”

Payler has not shied away from acknowledging the unrest, but says he feels confident that the district is addressing Hispanic students and their academic success.

“I’m not the most popular man in town ... during (my tenure as superintendent), if any group has increased and done pretty darned nice, it’s the Hispanic and English-language learners,” Payler said. “If anybody has maintained or gone down (academically), it’s been the Anglo population.”

 

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.