dollars and sense

Jeffco board OKs general fund on split vote

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco board chairman Ken Witt prepares for the rest of the school board's June 5 meeting during a recess.

GOLDEN — The Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education, on a 3-2 vote Thursday night, approved how the district will spend its largest pool of revenue for the 2014-15 school year.

The board split over how and by how much the state’s second largest school district should equitably fund its charter schools.

Board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman opposed the additional funding for charter schools — which was raised in an earlier vote Thursday night from a tentative $3.7 million to $5.5 million — and voted against the general fund budget as a whole.

Dahlkemper told her board colleagues she could support the $3.7 million for charters, pending a recommendation from Fellman to form a committee to discuss how to further evaluate how to increase funding to charter schools in subsequent years. The board majority — John Newkirk, Julie Williams, and Ken Witt — bucked the proposal,wanting to increase the funding this year.

The board, at the request of district staff, did unanimously approve tentatively increasing compensation for teachers by more than $4 million, pending final negotiations with the Jeffco teachers union. The total budget for compensation is now set at about $18 million.

Between increasing charter school funding and tentatively increasing teachers compensation, Jeffco finance chief Lorie Gillis warned the board the decisions they made Thursday could negatively impact the budget for the next several years if funding from the state does not continue to improve.

That could mean the district will face spending down its reserves or face budget cuts by the 2016 school year.

Further, the budget, Gillis said, does not address important issues like capital construction, beefing up technology and infrastructure, and improving the district’s choice system — a recent board priority.

Altogether, the suburban school district’s total budget for next year will be about $1.02 billion, which is broken into several different funds and expenses. The district’s general fund is the largest portion of the district’s entire budget.

The board unanimously approved mostly technical changes to the district’s other funds in subsequent votes.

The budget, despite a ballooning piggy bank, has been one of many ongoing conflicts between the board’s conservative majority and a fraction of the suburban community’s parents and teachers.

The district is expecting an increase of about $360 per pupil. Almost every department and school will see an increase in their bottom line.

In April, the board requested the district provide more money to the district’s charter schools — which claim they aren’t getting their fair share of local tax dollars voters have approved through mill levy questions since 1999.

In the budget that was presented to the board earlier this month, the district allocated an additional $3.7 million for the district’s 15 charter schools.

That money would close the discrepancy by about half. The final budget will close the gap by about three-fourths.

At the board’s first public hearing on June 5, charter school parents and activists asked the board, given the increase of state funding, close the gap completely “one and for all.”

“No one who has read the research would now dispute that there is a sizable discrepancy between the amount of funding Jeffco makes available to students attending its charter schools and the amount it makes available to identical students attending neighborhood schools,” said Nathan Drake, a Jeffco parent and member of the Jeffco Charter School Consortium. “As board members whose duty is to all of Jeffco’s children, you should never lose sight of the fact that this fundamental unfairness exists. The sooner you fully address it, the better.”

Parents who previously organized the district’s bond and mill campaigns said providing more funding to charter schools to make up the difference thwarts the will of the voters. The district and board — albeit comprised of a different majority at the time — made an explicit promises to Jeffco voters: the money would only be used to maintain the status quo.

Board member Jill Fellman, at the June 5 board meeting, suggested, to the ire of some, the charter schools ask the county’s voters for their own additional tax revenue.

In a move that increased tension, the board’s majority also scrapped an initial idea to expand Jeffco’s free full-day kindergarten to more schools to the tune of $300,000.

“You have been asked repeatedly to consider opportunities, such as an income-based sliding scale like Denver’s program, to allow more equitable access to full-day kindergarten,” said Tina Gurdikian, a parent who campaigned in 2012 for the mill and who is now advocating for the expansion of free full-day kindergarten, at the June 5 meeting. “I see from this budget presentation that there is no provision whatsoever for for full-day kindergarten. This concerns me considering 92 percent of budget survey respondents want full-day kindergarten — and the benefits are well-documented.”

In actuality, 71 percent of survey respondents said they supported expanding full day kindergarten.

Part of the board majority’s rationale for not expanding the full-day kindergarten program was the lack of localized evidence that the program increases student achievement, despite a groundswell of evidence from across the nation that it does.

According to district budget officials, Jeffco would have been able to fund more full-day kindergarten seats if the board reversed a previous vote to suspended the district’s participation in a childhood readiness evaluation known as TS Gold.

Littleton parent Katie Beyerlein said Thursday night the state mandate to implement TS Gold for kindergarten dollars wasn’t fair and suggested the district apply for a waiver.

“Sacrificing student privacy for money is an unwinnable situation,” she said.

However, the deadline to apply for the money has already passed, district officials said.

Previously, parents and teachers who have been a part of a pilot program for TS Gold have told the board TS Gold provided them useful information and an individual learning plan for students.

Board members Dahlkemper and Newkirk, who are generally on opposing sides of issues, attempted to find some compromise around expanding full day kindergarten, another sticking point, however a resolution never came to fruition.

Because a school district’s budget is largely based on per pupil funding, which is determined in October, and local tax revenue, which is factored only after the June 30 deadline, they are allowed to revise their budget up until Jan. 31.

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.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.