Budget blues

Is Jeffco Public Schools about to cut programs that haven’t gotten a chance to succeed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Jeffco Public Schools is proposing cuts to literacy intervention teachers and social emotional learning specialists.

In its bid to cut $20 million from next year’s budget, Jeffco Public Schools is looking to eliminate two programs that have posted promising results so far.

One is a three-year-old program to help struggling readers at 20 schools that have large numbers of students that need help. The other, modeled on work gaining momentum nationwide, is a new program focused on helping students develop social and emotional skills.

The proposal to cut 20 literacy interventionists and 31 social and emotional learning specialists would save $4.21 million. At what is expected to be an emotional and contentious meeting Thursday, the board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could decide to pull these items out and continue funding them.

District officials say both programs have made an impact but are among a raft of cuts necessary for the school board to make good on its promise to increase teacher pay after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

“It isn’t fun, but hopefully we can make some hard choices so we don’t have to do this in the future,” said district spokeswoman Diana Wilson.

Wilson said the literacy program has helped struggling readers — mostly second- and third-graders — make bigger gains in reading than similar students who didn’t get the extra help. Still, she said it costs about $4,000 per child.

“We know that’s it’s working,” she said. “We can see the impact, but it’s very expensive.”

The district’s social and emotional learning initiative for middle-schoolers has only been in place for about six months. It includes restorative justice programs, mindfulness training, anger-management classes and skill-building seminars. Administrators leading the program say it’s based on a growing body of evidence showing that efforts to improve students’ mental health pay academic and health dividends.

Student Services Director Jon Widmier said the extra social and emotional staff have helped the district get to a point where it can help kids proactively, instead of reacting when there’s a crisis.

“To lose (the specialists) is to really lose the foundation that could have some long-term effects on suicide risk … or even dropout rates,” he said.

Parent Shawna Fritzler, whose daughter is in seventh-grade at Manning School in Golden, said middle school is a time when kids need extra support because of changing bodies, friendships and school expectations.

“With the hormone overload, these kids are losing their minds,” she said. “This has been an amazing addition. I personally would like to see that program grow rather than be cut.”

Ezra Aldern, who serves as the social emotional learning specialist at an alternative middle school in Jeffco called Connections Learning Center, said suspensions declined 50 percent from the first semester of 2015-16 to the first semester of 2016-17. He credits the dip to two programs he’s launched.

One is a restorative justice program that allows students to work out conflicts in an adult-facilitated meeting and the other is a Saturday morning class he runs for students who’ve gotten in trouble. Participants make breakfast together, do a fitness activity and take part in a lesson to improve communication, conflict resolution or some other skill.

Aldern, a licensed social worker, said it’s important to remember that students aren’t hard-wired to have good social and emotional skills, especially in a technology-driven age when many students spend hours online. He said it would take at least three years to have a solid set of data to prove the program’s worth.

He’s not alone.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs for the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, said it’s unfortunate when funding gets cut before initiatives are given enough time to work.

“People aren’t very patient,” she said.

She said she’s seen social and emotional learning programs survive in other large districts that have slashed spending, including the 380,000-student Chicago Public Schools.

“It has to be something that’s identified by the superintendent, the board and community in order for it to withstand budget cuts,” said Schlinger, whose organization promotes social and emotional learning through research and advocacy.

Schlinger cited plenty of good work happening in Colorado around social and emotional learning. She mentioned Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District as two districts that have prioritized such efforts, and the Denver-based Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and the Boulder-based PassageWorks as two nonprofits that have supported such work.

Unlike in Jeffco, Denver voters approved new school funding in November, including $15 million that will be used partly to pay for new school social workers and psychologists.

Jeffco administrators say middle school principals will have the option to keep their social emotional learning specialists using money from their school budgets instead of central district money, but it would require them to cut something else. Each specialist costs about $60,000, though it varies depending on the type of license they have.

As for the school board reconsidering the proposed cuts, Widmier said the board has “impossible decisions” to make.

“It’s tough to play lifeboat,” he said, “and decide which one is the most important.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.