$15 million question

New Jeffco board to reconsider school construction, budget issues Thursday

The reconfigured Jefferson County school board is poised to make its first big decision Thursday, likely repudiating a move by three recalled school board members and reversing a controversial decision about how to pay for a new school.

In play is what to do with $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year and how to meet the needs of a growing neighborhood that needs a school.

Complicating matters for the state’s second largest school district: An uncertain financial forecast from the state, critical maintenance needs totaling $789 million and uneven growth patterns across the district’s 800 square miles that have some schools busting at the seams while others are losing students.

Last spring, the previous Jefferson County school board directed Jeffco Public Schools officials to use $15 million left over from the 2014-15 school year to build a new elementary school for the Candelas neighborhood in northwest Arvada.

That decision ran contrary to what district staff had recommended, which was to finance the new school using a lease-to-own option known as Certificates of Participation, or COPs, and earmark the $15 million for one-time bonuses and reserves.

At the time of the decision, board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk said they had found a way to build a new school without incurring any new debt for the state’s second largest school district. The vote became campaign fodder for the recall.

“At the time, I thought that was not a very sound decision,” said Ali Lasell, who won one of the board’s open seats in November.

But she added that she isn’t sure how she’ll vote on Thursday.

“It’s weighing on my mind heavily,” she said. “Having that $15 million might be a good way to lessen the load on the COPs. I don’t think there is a way around COPs. Fifteen million dollars isn’t even enough for an elementary school.”

Northwest growth

Few are debating whether a new school is needed in northwest Arvada. But there are questions about how many students the school should serve.

Like many school districts in the Denver-metro area, Jefferson County’s student population is growing.

District officials have said for two years that a new school would be needed to meet growth demands. They’ve suggested a K-8 school all along.

“It’s a rapidly changing area,” said Steve Bell, Jeffco’s chief operating officer.

The growth is driven by a booming economy, housing market and a birthrate that is growing for the first time since the Great Recession.

While the district’s student count is up to 86,731 students, some areas are growing while others are not.

More than 9,000 Jeffco students chose to attend district charters schools this year, up from about 8,000 last year, said Tim Reed, Jeffco’s executive director of facilities.

District-run middle schools in the north are stable, while many in the central part of the district are losing students at a quicker rate. Schools in southern Jefferson County are seeing the fewest new students and losing some.

The district considered shifting attendance boundary lines in the north and central area to accommodate the student boom, Reed said, but that would mean a 30-minute bus ride each way for some middle school students.

“On a snow day they could be on the bus for an hour and a half,” Reed said.

The new Arvada campus, regardless of the grade configuration, would be the first school the district has built from scratch since the early 2000s, Reed said.

“We’re being prudent,” he said.

The $15 million question

Given campaign rhetoric, the board is mostly likely to direct the district to use the private-market financing option to construct the new school and possibly two other projects.

If that’s the case, the $15 million previously earmarked for construction could be freed up and could serve as a down payment on those loans, got entirely into reserves, or a portion could be split among the district’s staff.

At a Dec. 17 school board meeting, Jeffco superintendent Dan McMinimee suggested about $5 million be split evenly among district staff including administrators, teachers and classified employees.

Another potential option is to give every employee a 1 percent bonus. A teacher making $50,000 would earn $500; a principal making $90,000 would earn $900.

Board member Lasell said if the one-time bonuses are approved, she wants the district to negotiate with the district’s unions.

“I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for the board to make a unilateral decision when it comes to teacher pay,” she said.

Possible delay

While the board could take action as early as Thursday, it’s also likely the board could delay some decisions until later this month.

Under state law, Jeffco has until Jan. 31 to amend its current school year budget.

“I understand the staff has ideas, but I don’t think there is a rush,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, a nonprofit that championed the recalled school board members’ policy decisions.

Atwell said she hopes the new board will roll some of the discussions about school construction, teacher pay and a possible bond question into budget conversations scheduled for later this spring.

“I just hope they’d consider everyone’s opinion and have a true community conversation,” she said.

Lasell said she’d support postponing some action for more community input. But she added, “That Candelas project has to continue on track.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Tim Reed’s last name. 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede