Future of Schools

Roller-coaster revenue ride

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.School boards across Colorado are finalizing 2011-12 budgets this month, with most putting a final stamp of approval on cuts not quite as deep as district leaders feared in February.

Denver Public Schools unfroze $10 million for schools, the Adams 12 Five Star district put back 22 teaching jobs and Aurora Superintendent John Barry assured staff in a parting-for-summer email that furlough days were not on the horizon – at least for next year.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed state budget, released Feb. 15, slashed K-12 funding by $332 million and sent district leaders scurrying to adjust numbers that had been based on former Gov. Bill Ritter’s more upbeat projections.

By May 6, when Hickenlooper finally signed the state budget, legislative negotiations had dropped K-12 funding cuts to $227.5 million – or an average reduction of $344 per student instead of nearly $500.

“When we first heard the governor’s original proposal, we threw everything on the table – bus fees and a lot of other things that we didn’t want to have to take a look at,” said Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Tustin Amole. “And then when the final numbers came in, we were relieved that as serious as those cuts are, they didn’t have to be even deeper.”

Here’s a look at the roller-coaster budget ride endured by the state’s six largest school districts in recent months, and where they’re ending up:

Jefferson County: Sticking to the plan

Leaders of the state’s largest school district held a press conference March 11 to announce a grim roster of reductions, including:

Jeffco’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$475
  • Final budget: -$335
  • Closing two elementary schools
  • Cutting all employees’ pay by 3 percent
  • Reducing 212 jobs across the district
  • Trimming two days from the school year
  • Charging students to ride school buses
  • Suspending a popular outdoor lab program

School board president Dave Thomas said the district “had very few choices” in its efforts to cut nearly $40 million.

“None of them were pleasant,” he said. “This is a lesson in frugality, unfortunately.”

On May 5, Jeffco became the first of the large metro area districts to approve its 2011-12 budget. But while state K-12 funding had improved, little had changed in Jeffco’s plan.

Jeffco School Board Member Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at today's press conference.
Jeffco School Board Member Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at March 11 press conference announcing cuts.

Lorie Gillis, Jeffco’s chief financial officer, said those meeting at the employee summit where the original cuts were sketched out had anticipated some changes in the state funding picture.

But because the district had been drawing down its reserves in prior years to close budget gaps and avoid deep cuts, she said they decided to move ahead with the plan.

“Our gap is not only closing the reduction in revenues from the state but it’s also balancing and actually reducing that level of reserve spend-down,” Gillis said. “We want to close the gap we’ve been using reserves for.”

Board members did tweak some parts of the original March budget proposal, including lowering the annual fees for students to ride buses from $150 to $100 for neighborhood schools. They also agreed to keep the outdoor lab schools open, after a community fund drive raised about $300,000.

Denver: Unfreezing dollars for schools

In January, Denver Public Schools announced $10 million in increased funding for schools, citing central-office budget cuts, record enrollment increases, savings from a 2008 pension refinancing and the winning of more than $80 million in grants over two years from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

After Hickenlooper’s budget proposal dropped, the district put the plan on hold.

“We effectively froze that $10 million,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “And when the changes were made this spring, we unfroze that $10 million.”

DPS funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$520
  • Final budget: -$366

DPS uses student-based budgeting, meaning dollars follow students. So schools with enrollment declines will not see more money.

Still, “No furloughs, no layoffs,” Boasberg said, referring to steps being taken by some struggling districts. Instead, “We will expect to see a significant net increase in teaching positions in the Denver Public Schools next year.”

The additional funding could hire about 150 teachers, though those decisions are up to schools so “it could be more, it could be less,” he said.

DPS is projecting an enrollment increase of nearly 1,700 students for fall, with slight increases in its population of English language learners and those participating in the federal lunch subsidy program, an indicator of poverty.

Since 2005, the district’s enrollment has grown by more than 8 percent, topping 78,000 students this past fall.

Final budget approval is scheduled June 23. Teacher pay is not on the table – both the union and school board signed off on a two-year contract in May 2010 that essentially freezes compensation for 2011-12.

Douglas County: Dipping into reserves, asking for help

Douglas County’s finance chief released two budget plans in March – one black and one blue.

And while a formal vote isn’t expected until June 21, all indications are the black budget will be chosen.

Dougco’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$465
  • Final budget: -$330

The key difference between the two is the black budget draws more from district reserves, in anticipation of putting tax increases for schools before voters in November.

As the state funding picture has fluctuated, the major change in the black budget has been fewer dollars coming from reserves.

Friday, the district issued a news release stating Superintendent Liz Fagen will recommend two ballot questions – tax hikes for building and operating schools – to school board members.

Board members would formally vote on the tax questions in July or August, though they’ve been discussing the idea for months while getting advice from bond consultants and political gurus such as former state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

Polling data

Polling data released Friday shows a fight ahead. The survey of 500 registered voters found 52 percent opposed to an increase for operating dollars, though that number improves slightly if the increase drops off after five years.

In fact, the only scenario under which an operating increase tilts in favor of passage is when the question specially states the money “would not include the funding” of vouchers.

A polling question about vouchers found mixed but strong reactions – 39 percent strongly in favor and 36 percent strongly opposed.

“We are certainly aware that this is a tough climate when it comes to elections,” said district spokesman Randy Barber.

Other steps in the black budget include reducing funding for middle and high schools by $100 per student. But the bulk of the $21 million in savings would come from pulling $13 million from reserves.

The district is still in negotiations with its teachers’ union.

Cherry Creek:  Reaching into the classroom

In March, as state lawmakers scrambled to find ways to improve Hickenlooper’s K-12 funding plan, Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Mary Chesley testified the cuts could be significant.

Instead of the “50-ish” loss of staff in 2010-11, she told members of the Senate Education Committee, it would be closer to “300-ish.”

“We will no longer be able to have our cuts just make it to the classroom door,” Chesley said. “They will be well within the classrooms.”

The final budget figures have softened the blow, though Cherry Creek school board members will vote June 13 on a budget that includes 150 fewer jobs.

Ch. Creek funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$480
  • Final budget: -$340

Of the 150, 72 positions are gone due to increasing the student to licensed staff ratio in schools from 18:1 to 18.5:1.

That doesn’t equal class size – that ratio is how schools are staffed, not how classrooms are filled – but it likely will mean some classes in some schools are slightly larger.

Licensed staff includes teachers but also counselors, librarians and social workers and schools decide how to best use their dollars.

“It will look different at every school because each school is given their staffing ratio and then they will determine their needs based on their individual community,” Amole, the district spokeswoman said. “It might mean one extra student somewhere in the building in a classroom.”

The loss of those 70 jobs will be through the non-renewal of probationary teachers working on annual contracts, she said. Virtually all of the total 150 jobs going away will be handled through retirements and normal attrition.

Administrations and other non-classroom employees will have their salaries frozen for a second year.

Teachers, in the second year of a two-year contract in 2011-12, will receive a 2 percent raise for another year of experience but no cost-of-living increase.

Adams 12 Five Star: Adding back teaching jobs

The district serving Northglenn and Thornton became one of the first in the metro area to begin charging students to ride the bus in 2010-11, along with cutting 188 jobs.

Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski: "It's tough. I haven't slept a lot."
Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski announcing his budget plan March 16.

Earlier this year, Superintendent Chris Gdowski announced similarly tough cuts for 2011-12, reducing another 180 positions including 94 classroom teachers.

May’s better budget news dropped the district’s gap from $30 million to $25.5 million and allowed it to add back 22 teachers and three administrative jobs.

In addition, the district increased funding for librarian or media center help from 1.5 hours to 5 hours per day and to put $550,000 into reserves in preparation for next year’s round of cuts.

Board members are expected to vote June 15 on the revised plan, which still includes a reduction of 164 jobs.

Adams 12 funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$470
  • Final budget: -$333

Joe Ferdani, the district’s communications manager, said the teaching positions added back include 15 in elementary schools, four in middle schools and three in high schools. The administrative jobs include an assistant director to help with a growing demand for special education services.

Ferdani said the district has yet to finalize its 2011-12 contract with its teachers’ union though officials are hopeful that negotiations will be complete by the budget vote later this month.

Aurora: Preparing for recurring cuts

Nearly 100 teachers, parents and community members attended a town hall meeting on the Aurora schools budget in late February, when the estimated gap was $25 million.

They talked about cost-cutting measures included staff furlough days and increasing employee health insurance premiums, just a few of the 45 cost-cutting options developed by the district.

Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.
Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.

On May 18, with the school year winding down, Barry told Aurora staff that the budget gap had dropped to $20 million and he was “confident” that four furlough days would not be necessary.

“I wanted you to have that information before we ended the school year,” he wrote in an emailed update.

The budget up for final approval on June 21 does not include furlough days. But it does include a delay in implementing new curriculum, no raises for staff and new health insurance co-pays for employees.

Casey Wardynski, the district’s chief finance officer, said the better state budget news in May has been mixed with bleaker financial news on other fronts – local property tax collections are down and there’s concern about specific ownership tax because of sluggish car sales.

“So the state picture is a little brighter but the local revenue picture is a little darker,” he said.

Aurora’s funding change
Per-pupil, 2010-11 to 2011-12
  • Hickenlooper plan: -$512
  • Final budget: -$361

Wardynski, who now puts the district’s budget gap at $24 million, said he’s focused on cutting recurring costs so the annual reductions are easier to bear.

For example, the district has shifted expenses from its general fund to other funds to alleviate the pressure. Metering schools to get a better understanding of utility costs revealed about 20 percent of such costs typically come from the kitchen. So the district has begun charging a share of utility expenses to its nutrition services fund, a separate and self-sustaining fund in many districts.

“We may be in a tough budget situation for many years,” he said. “Let’s do things that yield recurring savings … If we have to go through the pain, let’s not go through the same pain next year.”

About two-thirds of the $24 million gap is coming from changes that will yield recurring savings each year, he said. Still, much of the final third is coming from reserves – about $9 million.

“Children get one shot at an education,” Wardynski said. “Our country is going to have good times and bad times. Education shouldn’t fluctuate based on fluctuations in the economy.”

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.


Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”