Who Is In Charge

Results cause for celebration in Jeffco, more

Updated 1:30 p.m. Wednesday

The first Jefferson County election results came in at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday, and the party room at Chad’s restaurant in Lakewood erupted in cheers.

Tina Gurdikian, left, and Shawna Fritzler, supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures, danced at an election watch party at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Photo / Joe Mahoney

By 7:30 p.m., happy supporters of Jeffco Public Schools’ ballot measures 3A and 3B had thrown all caution to the wind. Some were Tebowing in the middle of the party room, where they had gathered to watch election returns. Others were dancing like ponies, “Mitt Romney Style,” as popularized in a video parody of “Gangnam Style” making the YouTube rounds.

Lesley Dahlkemper, president of the Jeffco school board, had stationed herself by the door of the room and was hugging everyone who walked in.

“It was a good team. It was a great team,” she said. “Whew, I can breathe again.”

Colorado voters Tuesday were overwhelmingly in support of proposed school district tax increases, passing 35 such proposals, according to a review of unofficial results by the Colorado School Finance Project and Education News Colorado.

The 38 proposals on this year’s ballots totaled about $1.03 billion; the total approved was about $1.009 billion.

Here’s a rundown:

Six regular bond issues were passed and only one was defeated, in the Gilcrest district of Weld County.

Fifteen property tax overrides to fund district operations passed. One proposal, in the Cheyenne RE-2 district on the eastern plains, apparently was defeated.

Thirteen bond issues intended to raise matching money for the state Building Excellent Schools Today program passed. Only one, in the West End district of Montrose County, was defeated.

In Aspen voters approved a sales-tax increase proposed by the city but which will funnel revenue to the school district. So, 34 property tax measures and one sales tax hike were approved around the state.

Passage of Jeffco’s tax measures marks the first time voters have said yes to more money for the state’s largest school district since 2004.

Jeffco’s campaign co-chair Jonna Levine, whose Election Day began with waving signs in support of the $99 million bond issue and $39 million operating tax to 7 a.m. commuters at Kipling and Alameda, said she started feeling confident when she saw all the senior citizens waving and honking.

Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, left, laughed with supporters at an election watch party Tuesday night at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Photo / Joe Mahoney

“That made us feel optimistic,” she said.

An exuberant Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, tears streaming down her face, said “It’s really good and it’s really BIG.”

Moments before, Stevenson had announced her intention to try her best not to cry, whatever the result. “We’re just holding our breath,” she said.

As latecomers arrived at the crowded election watch party, they were greeted with the news: “We’ve won!”

Colorado voters have a long history of passing most school tax proposals but the record has been mixed in recent years because of the dismal economy. Half of the state’s school measures failed in 2008, as the Great Recession began, including Jeffco’s requests for a $350 million bond issue and a $34 million operating increase.

In 2011, more than 30 school districts sought tax hikes but voters approved only $73 million of the more than $560 million proposed – or just 13 percent of the dollars sought.

But the economy has been tough on districts too, with reduced or flat state funding.

This year’s proposals for operating increases total about $150.7 million. Most of those districts say they need to increase operating revenues to at least partly offset the state budget cuts of recent years.

The total of the 2012 proposed bond issues is about $877.5 million, including nearly $100 million in requests from the districts that need to raise matching money to win state Building Excellent School Today grants.

Backers of district ballot measures hoped voters, buoyed by the slowly recovering economy, would be more likely to say yes. And, preliminary returns show, most of them did.

Jeffco’s ballot battle

Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures argued that question 3A, the $39 million increase in operating taxes, would help forestall $45 million in expected budget cuts.

Lesley Dahlkemper, president of Jeffco’s school board, led the district’s push for passage of $138 million in operating and bond dollars. She’s shown in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo from February.

They said the added revenue would maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, and buy back two teacher furlough days due to shorten the 2013-14 school year.

Question 3B, the bond issue, will provide 141 of the district’s 154 schools with updated fire alarms, roof repairs, sidewalk repairs, electrical upgrades and other capital improvements.

Together, both issues will raise taxes on a $250,000 home by an estimated $36.70 per year – roughly a dime a day, an amount community leaders deemed was fair, even though it doesn’t quite cover the estimated budget shortfall.

But opponents – which included one school board member, Laura Boggs – countered the school district wasn’t entirely transparent about either its funding options or where the increased tax money would go.

Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures watched returns at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Returns showed both measures passing, the first tax increases to pass for the district since 2004. Photo / Joe Mahoney

They said the district would not have to mandate employee furlough days or threaten increased class sizes if it were willing to ask employees to fund a greater share of their pension payments to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA.

“They insist they have no choice, but they do,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, an education reform non-profit, and Jeffco Students First Action, the group’s political advocacy arm. Atwell, a former financial planner from Evergreen, has taken the lead in opposing the ballot items.

“Looking at a billion dollar budget, there are other places to cut rather than threatening parents with bigger class sizes … The real cost drivers are things like the compensation package, which includes retirement and the underfunded nature of PERA.”

Supporters of the ballot measures had raised $149,504 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline on Nov. 2. Opponents reported raising $5,145.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, Atwell was ready to accept defeat and move on. There was no formal gathering of the issue’s opponents, and Atwell said most were at various candidate parties.

“We were outspent, and that made it tough,” she said, adding that she wasn’t too surprised by the outcome. “It’s hard for folks who challenge the status quo. But we did the best we could with the resources we had. We will keeping challenging the status quo, speaking up for students instead of employees. We will continue to monitor how those additional funds are spent.”

Other districts on the ballot:

Cherry Creek School District

Voters in the southeast suburban district faced two questions – a $25 million operating tax increase, or question 3A, and a $125 million bond issue, or question 3B.

District officials said the operating increase will be used to maintain class sizes, support curriculum and instruction, and enhance use of technology. Bond issue proceeds are to be used for STEM classrooms, renovations and additions around the districts, new technology, and safety and security.

It’s estimated the two proposals would cost the owner of an “average” home in the district an additional $8 a month in property taxes.

Early returns showed both ballot measures passing but district spokeswoman Tustin Amole was cautious.

“We think we’re okay, but we don’t know for sure,” she said. “I do know all precincts are partially counted. We are optimistic but won’t call it until the county does. But we like what we see so far.”

9News declared the ballot measures victorious in this story.

More information: Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools supporters’ website, District summary of proposal, District list of bond projects.

Aurora Public Schools

The district proposed measure 3C, a $15 million operating tax increase that Aurora officials say will be used to partly offset more than $70 million in state budget cuts over the last three years.

The money will be used for reading, writing, math, science and early childhood programs; classroom materials and technology; and maintaining staff.

District leaders estimate approval of the ballot measure would cost district homeowners an additional $5.71 a month or $68.52 per year for every $100,000 of home value.

The measure was headed for approval at midnight, after maintaining a comfortable lead throughout the evening.

More information: Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools supporters’ website, District summary of proposal.

St. Vrain Valley School District

The district sought a $14.8 million operating tax increase to maintain staff compensation and to support technology and early childhood programs. The school board had considered a $16.8 million increase but decided to ask for a lower amount in light of economic conditions.

It’s estimated passage of measure 3A would increase taxes $4.16 a month per $100,000 of actual home value.

The ballot question maintained a strong lead throughout the evening and appeared to be headed to victory. Wednesday, the Longmont Times-Call declared a win for the ballot measure in this story.

Greeley-Evans School District

Voters were asked to vote on an $8.2 million bond issue to provide 28 percent of the cost of replacing 50-year-old John Evans School. The state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program would provide the rest of the funds for the project. Greeley is an alternate for BEST funding, so a finalist would have to lose its bond election to free up money for the district, which would have to pass its bond to remain eligible.

Returns showed the district winning its request for more bond dollars, with 59 percent of voters reporting in favor and 41 percent against. District leaders celebrated victory, thanking voters in this Greeley Tribune story.

Sheridan School District

A Sheridan High School cheerleaders high-fives an elementary student at a district rally to celebrate gains on state tests. Sheridan was one of 33 school districts asking voters for more money this year; voters said yes in most cases.
The district was making its second try in two years for a bond issue to match a state BEST grant. This year, Sheridan proposed a $6.5 million bond to earn a state grant of $23 million. This year’s plan would replace an early childhood center, renovate a middle school and demolish an older elementary school building.

With early returns showing the measure heading for victory, Superintendent Michael Clough was in an upbeat mood.

“Sheridan has not built a school since 1972. So this is an exciting day for the Sheridan community,” he said. “Building a 3-5 connected to a 6-8 with common areas in the middle … also additional preschool classrooms … we have not had nearly enough spaces or slots for our preschool population. This will be huge educationally for us in so many ways.

Sheridan officials declared victory for the ballot measure before 9:30 p.m. See the press release.

Pueblo County

The district, which serves county areas outside the city of Pueblo, sought a $59.9 million bond for safety and security projects, replacement of modular units and other work.

District 70 voters rejected a $35 million bond and a $3.4 million operating increase last year, prompting leaders to redraft their bond proposal for this year.

Initial results showed a close margin of approval for the bond issue, with 53 percent of voters in favor and 47 percent against. As midnight neared, that had widened to a 55 percent lead and the Pueblo Chieftain Wednesday reported successful passage of the measure in this story.

More information: District summary of proposal.

Aspen

A .35 percent city sales-tax increase will provide an estimated $1.75 million for the school district.

The Aspen Times declared victory for the measure before midnight, according to this story.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.