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Jeffco Public Schools’ budget crunch — explained

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
The Jeffco Public Schools board room is packed on Thursday for a discussion on school closures.

On Thursday night, the Jeffco school board is set to dive into the painful process of deciding whether to close five elementary schools in an effort to save money and pay teachers more.

How did the district get to this point, and what kind of calculations are in play? We have answers.

Why is Jeffco proposing to close schools?
The district’s proposal to close five schools would save the district an estimated $3.5 million per year. The district is trying to free up between $20 million to $25 million to offer a more competitive salary to employees.

The district also has pointed to the failure of its bond and mill levy tax requests in November. Those measures would have helped pay for repairs at various schools. Bond proposal details showed Stober Elementary in Lakewood — one of the schools facing closure — was set to receive about $7 million to pay for a renovation and four new classrooms. The other four schools recommended for closure were not mentioned in the detailed bond summary released to the public.

Why is the district building new classrooms at the same time it’s closing schools?
Jeffco Public Schools has more than 13,000 unused seats because of declining enrollment across the district. But the empty seats aren’t evenly spread out and space needs aren’t the same in every neighborhood.

The new classrooms would be additions to middle schools as part of another piece of the plan that would move sixth graders into middle schools. (Right now, most Jeffco middle schools are just seventh and eighth grade). It would relieve some overcrowding at elementary schools and make use of some space in middle school buildings.

The classroom additions were among the projects that would have been paid for by the district’s bond request. Now they will instead be paid for with reserves allocated for capital construction. The district is also estimating some of the classroom additions at higher costs than was budgeted in bond details presented before November’s election.

Couldn’t the money for teacher’s pay also come from somewhere else?
The district does have some savings. Jeffco’s unassigned reserves — the district’s required savings that aren’t tied to any need — were at $76 million at the end of the last school year. That’s 13 percent of the district’s expenditures. According to the district, the Government Finance Officer’s Association recommends school districts save between 8 percent and 16 percent of their expenditures. The school board built up the reserves in 2015-16 with an additional $12.6 million.

Jeffco is using about $16 million from their reserves in the current school year to pay for “one-time compensation” and “student and staff supports.”

In short Diana Wilson, spokeswoman for the Jeffco district, said the cuts are meant to help position the district for more than one year so that cuts like this don’t have to be made again soon.

Do teachers in Jeffco really make that much less than teachers in other districts?
When the last school board approved a new compensation model for teachers, it also raised base pay. Jeffco staff has explained to the school board that new teachers aren’t necessarily getting paid less than a competitive salary. But some teachers with a middle-range of experience, such as more than five years of experience, can make more money elsewhere when they are allowed to transfer their years of service. But when teachers from other districts want to join Jeffco, the district restricts the years of service that can be credited, meaning that some have to take a pay cut. The goal of the compensation changes would be to even out the salaries in cases in which they are far below other districts’ pay. The details still would need to be worked out in negotiations with unions.

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee has said that because other neighboring districts were able to pass tax requests, they may use that money to increase their teachers’ salaries, increasing the gap in pay with Jeffco.

McMinimee also said he believes salary improvements are necessary for other employee groups, including bus drivers, and other lower paid positions that are hard to staff.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.

network analysis

Gates Foundation: Before we spend $1 billion on school ‘networks,’ tell us how they should work

PHOTO: PROThomas Hawk

Bill Gates announced last Thursday that his foundation would pour more than $1 billion into a new effort to improve schools. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is asking how to do it right.

Specifically, the foundation wants existing “networks” that help public schools improve to explain how they spend their money and what’s already worked for them. The Gates Foundation wants to fund more of those organizations, like Chicago’s Network for College Success, starting in 2018.

The Gates-funded networks will be focused on helping middle and high schools get more students to graduate and then succeed in college — specifically black, Hispanic, and poor students, according to the foundation’s website.

“We know there are organizations with strong perspectives about what it takes to do that work,” it says. “We want to hear about where great networks come from, how they operate, and under what circumstances they have been successful.”

The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat.

In his speech Friday, Gates said the foundation will spend $1.7 billion on U.S. education over the next five years, and more than 60 percent will go to expanding these networks and improving the curricula that students use.

You can read the request for information here. The foundation won’t be asking groups to officially apply for funding until January, and it expects to launch the effort in summer 2018.