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.

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.