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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.

testing testing

New York won’t apply for federal program that would have allowed for ‘innovative’ state tests

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A major makeover of the state’s English and math tests is not in the cards, top state education officials said Tuesday.

New York will not apply for a federal pilot program, which would have allowed the state to experiment with different kinds of math and English tests for grades 3-8, officials announced Tuesday. Last May, the state indicated it would apply.

The decision — which was based on the state’s conclusion that developing new tests would be too expensive — largely shuts the door on major testing changes, such as having students complete projects or submit examples of their work.

Creating “innovative assessments” for the math and English tests is a “very, very, large project,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “If we did it in some other areas, I think that we would have a lot more success with less costs,” she said, referring to subjects like science and social studies, as well as the exams that high school students must pass in order to graduate.

The move is likely to rankle parents who have led the charge to boycott state exams in New York, which has been rocked by one of the largest opt-out movements in the country. Though the state has already made some changes to the tests, including shortening them and giving students unlimited time to complete the material, these parents have called for more. Last year, nearly one in five families chose to have their children sit out of the tests.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a group that helped organize the opt-out movement, said she hadn’t expected major changes to come from the pilot program. But she’s disappointed that the state isn’t looking separately to take a new approach to its annual tests.

“I am frustrated as someone who opts their children out,” Rudley said. “If we have to do an assessment, it should be a value for the student and teachers to drive instruction.”

State officials say that more changes are not feasible right now. The state is already in the process of shortening the tests from three days to two and reworking test questions to match the state’s newly revamped learning standards.

“The fact that there is no additional federal funding available to implement the pilot means the Department must focus its resources on more immediate assessment priorities,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “We will continue to look for opportunities in the future should resources allow.”

Elia said the state is interested in experimenting with new tests in science, social studies, and for graduating students. State officials gave few additional details, but said the science tests should be “hands-on” and mentioned creating a “capstone” project for graduating students.

“Those are all things that are still on the page for a different approach for assessment,” Elia said.

extra time

Expect delays: New York will release statewide test scores later this year

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Are more students across New York state able to read and do math on grade level? This year, it will take a little longer to find out.

The state doesn’t expect to release scores for this year’s reading and math tests until mid-September, officials announced Tuesday. That’s at least a month later than usual: In recent years, the scores have come out between late July and mid-August.

The delay is caused by the state’s switch from three-day tests to ones that take just two days. The move requires officials to take extra time to figure out how many questions students must answer correctly in order to earn a passing score — a process that must happen every time tests are retooled.

But teachers and schools will not have test data any later than normal, officials said. The raw data which lets teachers know how their students did   will still be released in June, and schools will receive information about how many students passed the test in August.

The lag time between when schools receive information and the public release allows state officials to double check the data and make sure it is correct, officials said.

“The only thing that you have to think about the shift is when we can report out statewide,” said Angélica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner who oversees instruction (and who has made the news this week because she’s up for the top education job in Massachusetts). “That is the only thing that is different.”