dollars and sense

(Nearly) everything you need to know about Jeffco’s 2014 budget — and a little bit more

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County residents hung sings along a bridge at Wadsworth Boulevard and Bowles criticizing the Jeffco Public Schools' board majority last month. Some members of the Jeffco community are concerned about how the school board plans to spend the district's budget. The board will hear a presentation from district staff and public comment on the budget tonight.

What’s in and what’s out of the state’s second largest school district’s budget is likely to draw ire tonight when the suburban school board meets.

On the agenda is a presentation from district staff on the draft budget. The public will also have a chance to weigh-in on Jeffco’s coffers.

The bottom line: Due to an improving economy, Jeffco is getting more money from the state — about $29 million, which equates to $360 per student. And if the Board of Education were to approve the spending plan without changes, the district would even have $11 million left over to replenish the savings it depleted during the Great Recession.

And that’s after the district hands out raises to teachers and staff, purchases a new math curriculum, develops a new student-data website, and invests nearly $1 million in gifted and talented programs.

A budget like that, after years of draconian cuts, might be universally welcomed. But nothing in Jefferson County has been that easy since November’s election put a new conservative majority in place. Since the new board members were sworn in, meetings have been rife with tension.

That dynamic is unlikely to change tonight, despite the sunny budget situation. Debate is likely to be especially fierce over the budget proposal’s increased funding for charter schools and lack of new dollars for kindergarten.

Before you head out to the board meeting, Chalkbeat shares what you need to know about the budget below. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. with an executive session to discuss the teachers union collective bargaining agreement.

Impact on classrooms

The largest single increase in the general fund is compensation. The district has earmarked nearly $12 million to pay for raises to teachers and clerical staff, such as secretaries and janitors. Still, the budget proposes new spending on several projects and programs, including

  • $1.8 million for a new math curriculum;
  • $600,000 for a new student-data hub to be developed and run by the school district;
  • $900,000 to expand the district’s gifted and talented program;
  • $2 million for a new literacy program;
  • $700,000 to the district’s online education program; and
  • $4.5 million for mobile devices and the infrastructure to support them.

Overall, the general fund is expected to see a nearly 2 percent rise in revenue, or $15 million. School construction and repairs would accelerate under the proposed budget, which increases funding for capital projects by 76 percent, or $20 million.

How the budget was made

To prepare the budget, district staff reviewed enrollment projections at both its neighborhood and option schools, as well as charter schools. They worked closely with the state to determine changes in projected revenue. And they looked at inflation to gauge any potential increase in costs to goods and services.

After gauging about how much funding would be available for the next school year, district staff heard from the board of education, which recently updated its achievement goals and priorities. The district’s accountability committee formed a subcommittee to make recommendations. Additionally, more than 13,000 community members participated in an online survey. And individuals were allowed to share feedback at town halls throughout the 773 square miles that make up Jefferson County.

Budget basics

  • The budget, or how the district spends its tax revenues, follows the state’s fiscal year cycle, from July 1 to June 30. That means the board must approve a budget by June 30.
  • This year, the board is expected to sign off on the budget at its June 19 meeting. It is also expected to hear public comment on the budget proposal then.
  • However, because the budget is largely based on tax revenue from the state, which can go up and down throughout the year, the district has until Jan. 31 to update its budget as needed.
  • The budget is broken into seven different pots of revenue and expenses. The largest and most common is known as the “general fund.” The general fund is made up of both local and state tax revenues, including dollars collected from the district’s three successful mill and bond questions. That money pays teachers and funds the central administration building, student services, and security, among other line items.
  • Charter schools have their own fund. That bucket of revenue includes tax revenues divided up by pupil and any grants or donations the schools receive.

Budget battles

So, with an increase in revenue, raises for staff, and funding for new programs, why are so many people likely to be so angry about the budget? In addition to the fact that there is already widespread concern about whether the new board majority represents the will of the county’s majority, the budget also contains two probable sticking points.

The first is funding for charter schools. Earlier this year, the board’s conservative majority said they wanted to equalize local per pupil funding for students who attend the district’s charter schools.

Under state statute, students who attend charter schools must receive their share of per pupil dollars that the district receives from the state. And that’s what happens in Jeffco. But Jeffco charter school operators are not getting an equal share of money from voter-approved tax revenues, known as mill overrides.

If all things were equal, Jeffco’s 15 charter schools would receive about $7 million more each year.

Supporters of the 2012 mill question, which passed, say the board’s majority — which had not yet been elected and had no role in the development of the mill question or campaign — is violating the public’s trust and thwarting the will of the voters by giving $3.7 million from the district’s general fund to the district’s charter schools.

They said they worked diligently to persuade the community to support the tax increase. That included spelling out in great detail how the money would be used — and giving more money to charter schools was not part of the campaign.

District staff, in an interview with Chalkbeat, acknowledged charter schools have historically been underfunded. And a key assumption in the district’s budget is that charter school enrollment is going up, while it’s declining at neighborhood schools. It’s also important to note, they said, that both state and local revenues funnel into the same pot. So, while the math used to determine how much more the district should fund its charter schools is based on mill revenues, its impossible to say mill money is being directed to charter schools.

Because of increased revenues from the state, handing over $3.7 million to the district charter schools is an easy request, district staff said. They added that neighborhood schools would not suffer as a result.

The board’s decision not to expand the district’s free full-day kindergarten program is also likely to draw fire.

Jeffco currently provides free half-day kindergarten to all students. At 40 elementary schools where more than 36.8 percent of students are so poor that they qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, the second half of the day is also free to families. At the district’s other 52 elementary schools, parents who want their kindergartners enrolled all day must pay $300 a month.

Expanding the free program got high marks on the Jeffco community budget survey. And a majority of members on the district’s accountability committee, which also provided guidance on the budget, ranked the expansion as a high priority. (A minority report from the committee disagreed.)

Expanding the program to another 17 schools that have many students living in poverty would cost the district $600,000 — a modest proposal to some. But the board’s majority opposes the expansion, saying that there is no local proof that Jeffco’s kindergarten program works.

District staff said there have been talks about developing an alternative proposal that would provide free-full day kindergarten on an individual basis to Jeffco students living in poverty — regardless of which school they attend, as board majority member John Newkirk suggested last month. But that proposal hasn’t made it to the board or into the budget.

The budget also notes that Jeffco must forfeit an estimated $1.3 million in state early childhood education fund because the board has not put into place a school readiness assessment. If the board were to reverse that decision before June 14, the district could apply for the money and add up to 900 additional kindergarten seats.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”