running out of time

These five Jeffco elementary schools face possible closure. Here’s why.

Five Jefferson County elementary schools in three different areas of the state’s second largest school district would be closed after this school year as part of $20.4 million in budget cuts proposed Thursday.

Jeffco Public Schools is facing a squeeze in local and state funding while it also seeks to better pay teachers and staff, which the school board has made a top priority.

In hearing staff budget recommendations Thursday night, the board kicked off what is sure to be a difficult, contentious process. Few issues are as gut-wrenching and politically fraught as closing schools that are woven into the fabric of communities.

The five schools facing possible closure after this school year are: Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge, Stober Elementary in Lakewood and Pleasant View Elementary in Golden.

In total, the schools have 850 students in their enrollment boundaries, district officials say. All five are in buildings that are at least 50 years old. All but one — Pennington — saw enrollment declines this year.

Four of the five schools share another characteristic — their student populations are poorer than the district average. At both Pennington and Pleasant View, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches, an indicator of poverty. At Swanson, the rate is 66 percent and at Peck, it is 58 percent. The district average is 33 percent.

Closing the schools and sending the children to neighboring elementaries would save the district $3.5 million a year, staff said.

“We need to get the process right as we go down this trail,” said board president Ron Mitchell. “Part of the reason I believe that is because this is not the end of this process. This is the beginning. We are going to be in this business (of closing schools) in the years to come … We need to do it well, do it right.”

The board was asked to vote on the closures and other budget cuts on Feb. 9 — a quick turnaround that illustrates the difficult position the district is in after November’s failure of two tax measures that would have gone to buildings and teacher salaries.

Other Denver-area school districts passed their tax measures, putting Jeffco at a disadvantage when economic forecasts and limitations from the state’s complicated tax laws mean “there is no life raft coming from the state,” as one staff member put it. 

With 13,000 seats sitting unused, enrollment projected to continue declining in certain areas, and the edict that teachers be paid more to keep the district competitive, district staff said the time to act is now.

“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”

District staff chose the schools based on a number of criteria, including enrollment trends, the condition of the building and the capacity of nearby schools to absorb more students. Academic performance was not taken into account.

District staff is also recommending another significant, long-discussed change: that Jeffco middle schools add sixth grade in addition to the existing seventh and eighth grades, to make better use of space and save money. The majority of districts in metro Denver and the nation follow that structure. Some Jeffco middle schools would get additions to make room for the additional grade.

Other budget cuts that district staff recommended include:

  • Eliminating all social and emotional learning specialists and a coordinator. Schools nationwide are investing in this work, which helps students develop skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts and make responsible decisions. Denver Public Schools in November passed a tax increase that will bolster efforts to help students’ social and emotional needs.
  • Cutting by half the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level. District research shows literacy interventionists are “closing the gap for our most highly impacted populations.”
  • Cutting four of 16 “resource teachers” who help support teachers of students determined to be gifted and talented.

Other proposed cuts include increased athletics fees, elimination of a quarterly audit and a reduction in how often schools are cleaned at night by custodians.

Only a handful of the proposed cuts — including the school closures and fee increases — require board approval.

Several school board members expressed reservations about the proposals Thursday, voicing concerns about a “very squeezed timeline,” that three of the schools slated for closure were not previously identified as candidates for closure, and a possible erosion in community trust in the board. Some questioned whether school performance should be a factor in closing schools.

Board member Ali Lasell said the board had told the community that steps such as moving sixth grade into middle school wouldn’t happen until 2018. The response from district staff: Circumstances have changed and so must the plan.

Said Mitchell: “We’ve got in my mind a little bit of an integrity issue here.”

McMinimee said fewer than 120 teachers and staff would be impacted by the closures, and most would likely be offered other positions in the district, in part because of expected turnover.

As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings that also are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking earnings from that.

In an interview before Thursday’s meeting, McMinimee said the district is watching enrollment along the county’s eastern boundary with Denver, where some longtime families no longer have children in school and others are being priced out or kept out by skyrocketing housing costs.

Both Denver Public Schools, which is seeing its enrollment growth slow, and Aurora Public Schools, which saw a record enrollment decline this year, also are feeling the impacts of rising costs and gentrification.

“Growth in a metro area is a lot like throwing a rock in a pond,” McMinimee said. “What happens in Denver just has this ripple effect you see going out into the suburbs now. Obviously, that stops when you get out into an area where there are high-priced homes already.”

The district and community groups have poured resources into lifting student achievement in clusters of schools with large numbers of students who live in poverty. Just last week, the district celebrated graduation rate gains at one such school, Jefferson High.

McMinimee acknowledged he was concerned about the impact the closures could have on the district’s efforts to serve traditionally underserved communities, but he urged a broader view.

“I am concerned about that, but I also recognize our responsibility is to 86,000 kids,” he said. “It’s not just one specific area. Those efforts that we put into those schools, those can be replicated in other areas.”

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.