Jeffco latest to announce cuts

Jeffco School Board Member Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at today's press conference.
Jeffco School Board President Dave Thomas and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson at Friday's press conference.

GOLDEN – Colorado’s largest school district announced plans Friday to close two schools, cut all employees’ pay by 3 percent and trim two days from the school year in the face of nearly $40 million in cuts for 2011-12.

Jefferson County Public Schools’ budget proposal also includes charging students to ride school buses, reducing graduation requirements by a single credit and suspending a popular outdoor lab program that’s been a rite of passage for sixth-graders since 1962.

A total of 212 jobs will be cut across the district, including more than 100 teachers, but district leaders said most of that will come from normal attrition, not re-hiring temporary employees and leaving positions vacant.

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“The impacts are deep,” Jeffco school board president Dave Thomas said at a morning news conference. “I am really profoundly saddened that we have to do these closures. However, we had very few choices and none of them were pleasant.”

The district of nearly 86,000 students had expected cuts in state school funding of $26 million, and already had drawn up plans to trim some jobs. School closures were considered, but rejected, by school board members in January.

That changed, Thomas said, when Gov. John Hickenlooper last month proposed steeper-than-expected cuts of $332 million in K-12 funding for fall. For Jeffco, the state cuts would mean a loss of $475 per student. Altogether, district officials say, they now must reduce expenses by $39.9 million.

“This is a lesson in frugality, unfortunately,” Thomas said. “During difficult times, you have to make difficult decisions.”

Proposal stems from budget summit

Hickenlooper’s budget announcement came Feb. 15, as Jeffco district and union leaders were participating in a national labor-management conference called by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“We knew we had to do something different to address the crisis we were about to face,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers’ union.

JCEA President Kerrie Dallman
Kerrie Dallman, JCEA
“The way we fund public education has got to change. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call.”

So on March 4 and 5, Jeffco held its first employee summit to tackle the budget, attended by two representatives each from the school board, district leadership, the teachers’ union, the administrators’ association and the union representing support staff such as secretaries and bus drivers. A federal mediator facilitated talks, and the budget proposal was created.

It is an all-or-nothing package, said Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, meaning it’s intended to be approved as a whole, without tinkering with individual components. A board vote is likely in May.

“If we start saying, maybe we won’t do this one, maybe we won’t do that one, we frankly go back to where we were before this two-day summit,” Thomas said. “Our intent was to do this as a unified group of people committed to the education of kids … We do not want to have a Wisconsin, believe me.”

Dallman and Bob Brown, executive director of the Jeffco Classified School Employees Association, met with their members Thursday night to go over the plan: The 3 percent pay cut comes from all employees working six fewer days in 2011-12. That likely means less time for training.

“Most people who work in support positions in public education do so because of the kids,” Brown said. “So I’m lucky they support the idea of trying to maintain as much as possible the quality of education in the classroom.”

Dallman said it was “difficult” to tell teachers about the pay cut, particularly since budget forecasts through 2013-14 look little better.

“We are fully committed to working with the district and our other employee groups,” she said. “But we also recognize that the way we fund public education has got to change. And hopefully, this is a wake-up call for the members of our organization, the community in Jefferson County and those across the state.”

Cuts rippling through school districts

Friday’s announcement makes Jeffco just the latest large metro-area district to propose significant changes to make ends meet.

    Proposed per-pupil cuts
  • Jeffco: – $475
  • Denver: – $520
  • Dougco: – $465
  • Cherry Creek: – $480
  • Adams 12: – $470
  • Aurora: – $512
  • State average: – $486

Find your cuts

  • Seach the EdNews’ database to see how the proposed state cuts would affect your district.

On March 9, Douglas County school board members directed staff to explore placing a tax increase on the November ballot. The other budget option includes four furlough days for staff and sending $200 to $300 less per student to schools.

Denver’s budget decisions seem less dramatic, with $10 million in cuts to central services and schools receiving essentially flat funding for 2011-12. Employees will not get raises – but furloughs and layoffs are not expected, which Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributes partly to growing enrollment and $15 million in savings from a 2008 pension refinancing transaction.

Hickenlooper has said he is cutting K-12 education, which makes up more than 40 percent of the state budget, because he had nowhere else to go.

“We knew when the proposed budget was released last month that the fallout would be painful,” Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown said Friday. “There were no easy cuts in the budget, especially when it came to education. The state simply doesn’t have the ability to fund what it used to.”

Stevenson acknowledged that some of Jeffco’s proposed cuts – shortening the school year, reducing teacher training days – defy current thinking about what improves student achievement.

“We’re going backwards,” she said, at a time when expectations in law, such as Senate Bill 191, which ties educator evaluations to student academic growth, are increasing.

“We have to start having the kind of discussion and the dialogue about what we expect of our public services,” said Dallman, with the teachers’ union. “What kind of education do we want for our children in Jefferson County? It’s going to be the taxpayers that are going to have to answer that.”

Details of Jeffco budget proposal

School closures – Principals, teachers and parents at Martensen and Zerger elementary schools were notified this week of the district’s proposal to close them this spring. Jeffco estimates the district would save $300,000 per school per year in closing Martensen, which serves 240 students in Wheat Ridge, and Zerger, which enrolls 291 pupils in Westminster. Both schools have been on potential closure lists in the past two years as the district has grappled with budget cuts. Martensen students would be shifted to Stevens Elementary and Wheat Ridge Middle School, which would serve grades 5 through 8, while Zerger students would move to Warder, Weber and Lukas elementaries.

Student fees – The budget proposal includes a $150 annual bus fee for elementary, middle and high school students attending their neighborhood schools and a $175 annual fee for students attending options or choice schools, which draw students from across the district. Students qualifying for federal lunch assistance would receive waivers of the bus fees. If approved, Jeffco would become the third metro-area district, following Douglas County and Adams 12 Five Star, to charge for transportation. Athletic fees also are expected to increase but an exact amount hasn’t been set. Stevenson said the department has been given an amount to cut and is figuring out ways to get there.

Fewer school days – Jeffco’s 175-day school year for students would be reduced to 173 days as all employees work six fewer days, including two student-contact days. Stevenson, the superintendent, said she hopes to alert families within weeks to those likely changes to the 2011-12 calendar. The change would not put Jeffco at risk of too little time in school, she said. State law dictates the required number of minutes for schools to be in session, not a specific number of days.

Job cuts – Slightly over half of the 212 positions to be eliminated are teachers, including 53 elementary teachers, 17.5 middle school teachers (one part-time) and 40 high school teachers. District and union leaders said the majority of jobs cut would come through attrition, reducing employees on temporary one-year contracts and not filling already vacant positions. Dallman, the teachers’ union president, said no probationary or non-probationary teachers are expected to lose their jobs.

Class size increases – Fewer teaching positions would mean larger class sizes in most elementary school classrooms, district officials said, and fewer electives and scheduling options available for middle and high school students. Average class size in kindergarten is now 24, while it’s 20 in grades 1 through 3 and 24 in grade 4. Grades 5 and 6 average 28 students per class. Estimates of how high those numbers might go are not yet available.

Lower graduation requirements – To adjust for fewer high school teachers, the number of credits required to graduate would drop from 24 to 23 and students would no longer be required to have world language credits, a mandate which went into effect with the Class of 2013. The change relieves high schools of having to add language teachers to their staffs. Stevenson, the superintendent, estimated 70 to 80 percent of students would take world language classes anyway, since they’re required by most colleges and universities.

Suspend outdoor labs – Jeffco estimates it would save $900,000 per year by suspending programs for sixth-graders at Mt. Evans and Windy Peak outdoor education labs. Thomas, the school board president, said the popular labs have been in use since 1962 – but that, even with fees charged, they lose about $1 million a year.

Video highlights of Friday press conference on Jeffco budget cuts

Video length 1:59 minutes

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.