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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.