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

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.