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.”

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.