Colorado

Districts begin tough budget talks

GOLDEN – For teachers in Colorado’s largest school district, Thursday’s $110 million cut in state education funding means their 1 percent raise in April will be a stipend and not a permanent increase.

Jefferson County teachers, like those in several districts across Colorado, agreed to a contract for 2009-10 that included a contingency – if the state doesn’t cut that $110 million, teachers get more.

In Denver Public Schools, it means teachers will not get an additional 1.65 percent increase. In Adams Five-Star schools, teachers will receive a .82 percent stipend in April, instead of a .82 percent salary-building raise.

And in Cherry Creek schools, teachers will not get an additional .5 percent increase.

“I think, truthfully, they have expected it, looking at what’s been happening with the state budget crisis,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, who will begin formally notifying her teachers today.

Few seemed surprised or particularly upset about the funding cut, equal to 1.9 percent, that was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Bill Ritter. That’s partly because it was expected, as increasingly dire state revenue forecasts have issued from the Capitol since state lawmakers in May ordered districts hold $110 million in reserves.

It’s also because districts are now preoccupied with preparing for bigger cuts ahead, including a projected 6 percent cut for 2010-11.

“This will trigger in a number of districts some kind of direct salary implication for teachers,” Colorado Education Association spokeswoman Deborah Fallin said of the 1.9 percent reduction.

“But … this is probably minor compared to what the impact is going to be in the 2010-11 budget.”

Bracing for what’s ahead

For school districts, which typically spend 80 percent or more of their budgets on staff, cuts in state funding often translate into fewer teachers hired and larger class sizes.

At least two districts, one large and one smaller, are putting controversial ideas on the table in an attempt to keep that from happening.

In Pueblo County, school board members this month re-opened talks about switching to a four-day school week. Board members voted 3-2 against the idea last year but, facing more cuts, they’re taking another look.

The plan could save as much as $1.1 million in transportation, utilities and part-time workers such as classroom aides. A Jan. 11 board meeting brought out more than 100 people, many of them holding pink fliers proclaiming “No 4-day week,” the Pueblo Chieftain reported.

More than 100 people attended a recent budget discussion in Pueblo District 70. Chieftain photo.

A July 2006 state report found 62 districts on four-day weeks but noted “most are rural and sparsely populated.” The 9,000-student Pueblo district would be the first of substantial size to switch.

In Jefferson County, two school board members want budget talks to include consideration of a reduction in base salary for all teachers – rather than the more common salary freeze.

It’s not unusual in tough budget years for boards to save money by freezing teachers’ traditional annual raises for another year of service or for more college credits earned.

But board member Laura Boggs on Thursday said that stopping those raises, known as “steps and lanes” or “steps and levels,” doesn’t impact all teachers the same.

“Why have we not had a conversation about reducing everybody’s base salary instead of freezing steps and levels?” she asked during a board meeting.

Both Boggs and board member Jane Barnes, who brought up the issue at a budget meeting last week, said they were passing along community suggestions.

Jeffco’s difficult budget dilemma

Dallman, the teachers’ union president, said about 25 percent of Jeffco teachers do not receive “steps and levels” each year.

But while Dallman said she appreciated Boggs’ quest for equity, she described any proposal to reduce teachers’ base pay as “insulting.”

“Teachers are tired, the workload has been phenomenal,” she said. “The district has asked us to do so much and we have risen to the challenge and we have gotten results.”

The 86,000-student district outperformed state averages in all subjects and grades tested on Colorado’s 2009 annual exams. Its 2009 graduation rate was 81.3 percent, reflecting a 4.2 percentage point spike led by a nearly 9 percent jump in the number of Hispanic students graduating.

Jeffco School Board member Laura Boggs

“For two board members to be suggesting that teachers’ salaries be rolled back is completely, completely unacceptable,” Dallman said.

Boggs made it clear that she wants to avoid increasing class sizes, declaring at one point, “I’m not going to put a 2nd-grader in a class of 27 kids, it’s not going to happen.”

Already, in anticipation of budget reductions including the 1.9 percent cut, Jeffco eliminated 50 elementary teaching positions as part of $11.8 million in cuts for 2009-10.

For 2010-11, budget work groups have come up with proposals that include eliminating another 114 teaching positions. And in 2011-12, when school funding is expected to continue its decline, the proposals include eliminating another 162 teaching jobs.

Altogether, the proposals call for cutting nearly 470 jobs – from teachers and administrators to custodians and bus drivers – across the district to help save $43.8 million over two years.

Holly Anderson, a community superintendent charged with reporting school-level impacts to board members, tried to answer questions about the potential for larger class sizes and for fewer electives such as art and music.

“It really touches every classroom, every school,” she finally told them.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

To learn more:

Click here to see a district-by-district breakdown of the 1.93 percent cut. Column D shows the amount each district is losing.

Here’s a sampling of budget cuts being discussed by other districts around the state:

Aurora Sentinel: Superintendent mulls layoffs, class size changes for APS.

Denver Post: Littleton Public Schools board hashing out $9 million in cuts.

Greeley Tribune: District 6 isn’t alone in quest for cuts in Colorado schools.

Pueblo Chieftain: D70 slashes $377,100 from special education.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.