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.

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.”