Volunteering infomation: Development and presentation of educational plan raises questions

It’s billed as a cooperative effort to help Mesa County School District 51 prepare students for global competition in a rapidly changing world.

The Grand Junction Forum, a committee of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, staged meetings for more than three years and announced in September the 500 Plan, a proposal to recruit 500 volunteers to spend an hour a week each tutoring elementary school students.

Many people first learned about the Grand Junction Forum and 500 Plan from a series of stories published in the Daily Sentinel newspaper. Some of those people included officials usually involved in discussions about improving the local economy and education system.

One of them was Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland, an active member of a task force that has worked with the school district to develop ways to discourage young people from using methamphetamines. “I had no idea it had been going on for years,” Rowland says of the forum effort.

Rowland was, however, aware of cooperative efforts between the chamber and school district though the long-standing Business-Education Foundation. Cooperative efforts in recent years have included events at which students learn about prospective careers from business people as well as speed-reading instruction for students.

Rowland says she also was aware of some attempt to bring business people into schools. She heard of the concept through her work as a board member for Caprock Academy, a Grand Junction charter school. The Grand Junction Forum invited Caprock representatives to attend a meeting.

School District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz says he first became aware of the Grand Junction Forum in the spring of 2009, prior to becoming superintendent. He says he was called in to meet with the committee of 12 people and recalls they didn’t mince words. “They were critical,” Schultz says. “They are a sub-committee (of the chamber) and said they were concerned about the economy.”

The chamber and members of the forum say the group was formed in 2007 to discuss important attributes of the Grand Valley that sustain the economy and subsequently focused on efforts to offer a world-class education, one that would prepare students to compete in a global economy.

The 500 Plan seeks to increase the amount of instructional time students receive by recruiting volunteers to spend an hour a week tutoring elementary school students.

The world-class goal was nothing new for Schultz, who says the school district continually strives to prepare students to compete globally. “From an education perspective, we’re always trying to give the best education,” he says. “‘World class system’ is something they came up with.”

Schultz says the term amounts to a marketing tool. “I truly believe our kids are entering a world that’s competitive. We needed to do things dramatically differently.”

The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce declined to answer questions from the Grand Valley Business Times about the process of organizing the forum and staging meetings and the way in which the 500 Plan was brought to the attention of the media. But Chamber Board Chairman Craig Lamberty did write a letter to the editor, which is published on page 27 of this issue of the Business Times. The letter includes some answers to questions the newspaper formulated as it solicited input from a group of community advisors to the paper. Those questions asked:

What did the cooperative effort hope to accomplish, other than asking business people to volunteer in classrooms? Haven’t such volunteer efforts been in place for more than 20 years?

Why was a one- to three-year effort involving several community leaders and the largest employer in Mesa County a secret to most media and to many community leaders until the effort was published in a five-part Daily Sentinel five-series?

If input from community leaders was important, why the secrecy for so long?

Why did members of the chamber not know about the meetings until September? Why was there no mention via e-mail or in chamber newsletters, even though the effort has been cited as a critical effort in improving the local work force and economy?

Were decisions about how to pursue a world-class education already made by the Grand Junction Forum before members asked for input from a larger group of community members?

Will teachers be asked to volunteer at area businesses as a fair exchange designed to further solidify the link between people who educate and people who hire?

Why did the panel feature two members of  the Daily Sentinel, including one of the newest media people in town?

Why was no other media on the forum? And why was a news conference held after the Sentinel ran its five-part series?

Why would a group of business people try to help the school district do its job? Should the school district invite business people to a meeting to tell them how to run their businesses?

Has the district been pursuing something less than the best education system possible prior to the forum meetings?

Sally Schaefer, retired chief executive  officer of Hilltop Community Resources and a current member of the Health Care Development Council, also serves as a member of the Grand Junction Forum.

“I’ve been part of the forum for about four years,” Schaefer says. “I was on there due to efforts to get a rec center in town.”

Schaefer has spearheaded an effort to try to construct a public recreation center for more than four years. The effort began during a booming local economy, but stalled in recent years as local community efforts pursued such priorities as a new police station while simultaneously wrestling with shrinking budgets.

As for the appearance of secrecy, members of the Grand Junction Forum who spoke with Business Times say there was no effort to keep the meetings secret. However, they also say there was no concerted effort to inform the media or public by issuing a news release or inviting the public to attend meetings.

The process was no surprise to Schaefer, who’s familiar with serving on committees set up to improve conditions in Mesa County. “I don’t recall where anyone thought this was important (enough to notify the general public),” she says. She also says she’s familiar with the process of issuing a news release to all media at the same time for large community issues, but didn’t think the forum conversations fell under that category. She says she’s been in the Denver area much of the past six months working on the Colorado Health Foundation and wasn’t deeply involved with forum efforts during that time.

“There was no word to spread,” says Dennis Herzog, a member of the forum and retired executive editor of the Daily Sentinel.

The forum membership also includes Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton. No other members of the media were invited to join the forum. A news conference about the 500 plan wasn’t called until after the series was published in the Sentinel.

“I believe we were transparent in our efforts,” says Greg Mikolai, a member of the District 51 School Board who met with the forum as it developed the 500 Plan. “We had a five-part series leading up to the news conference.”

He said the series in the Sentinel helped inform the public so they would have knowledge prior to the news conference.

Seaton echoed Mikolai’s view that publication in the Sentinel made sense prior to the public news conference. Seaton says the chamber encouraged the paper to report on the issue.

Grand Junction Mayor Teresa Coons also serves on the Grand Junction Forum. She says forum meetings were informal, so there wasn’t a perceived need to issue a news release. However, Coons also says the forum could have handled the media better. “We didn’t have a conscious media plan. We ought to sit down and develop a media plan.”

Seaton says he joined the forum as a successor to former publisher Alex Taylor. By late last year, the forum focused on improvement on K-12 education as “the No. 1 factor in the quality of the economy.” Seaton says. He add: “There was no real cohesive direction until the last couple of months.”

Herzog says a Daily Sentinel reporter sat in on some forum meetings.

The Business Times interviewed Schultz and Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, in August for news stories that appeared in a focused-content section on education. Schwenke didn’t mention the forum or its efforts. Schultz said the district was working  with  the  chamber on  an  effort involving education and economic development, with details to be announced in a few weeks. The announcement did come within a few weeks, but not before the Sentinel published its series of stories.

Schultz offered copies of minutes of public school board meetings that verify the Grand Junction Forum had been discussed in February and March.

Mikolai says he joined fellow school board member Harry Butler in attending some of the forum meetings following mention of the effort during school board meetings. Mikolai says only two board members attended to avoid the requirement that meetings involving at least three school board members be publicly announced. “We do that with several things,” Mikolai says. “This was just to have some input, to listen to the business community and, as a parent, to improve education.”

As of press time, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce had yet to issue a news release about how many volunteers have signed up under the 500 Plan. A story that appeared in the Sentinel in early November stated that about 80 volunteers had been recruited.

At the Sept. 2 news conference announcing the 500 Plan, John Hopkins, chairman of the Grand Junction Forum, indicated the 500 Plan constitutes the first step in efforts to help offer a world-class education in Mesa County. While the chamber won’t comment about the next step, some forum members shared their views.

“At this point, I think we want to see how successful the 500 Plan is,” says Coons, adding there’s no specific plan beyond the evaluation of the volunteer effort.

Says Seaton:  “I would like to think that through a private effort, we could do something audacious in the K-12 offering.” Given the numbers of volunteers reported in his paper, he suggested one goal might be to “ramp up the number” of volunteers.

As for teachers volunteering at businesses, Schultz says school district could be open to that concept as a way to help solidify community bonds. He says such an effort occurred in the 1990s, but the district didn’t think the teachers benefited enough from the process. “It was a great event, but not much impact.”

He also emphasized that one reason he attended a forum meeting when invited was that he tries to accept every invitation that could lead to partnerships to improve schools. “Anytime they call, I go,” he says of invitations from community organizations. “This is a time to bond together.”

Parents also are considered key components in the effort to educate children. Schultz said many of those parents need help themselves. “I don’t think our parents don’t care,” he says. “Parents who have economic issues don’t always have the time.”

As School District 51 begins work on a new strategic plan, members of the Grand Junction Forum say they plan to continue to work on ways to increase the amount of instructional time students receive, including recruiting volunteers through the 500 Plan.  Those plans remain unclear, though, as the school district moves forward with its own efforts to offer a word-class education.