tough cuts

Hundreds of Denver teachers to lose positions due to falling enrollment at their schools

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post
Melisa Piedra-Jara and her sister Jennifer pass time on the Barrett Elementary playground in 2015. Barrett is closing next year and will lose 15 teaching positions.

Nearly 500 Denver school staff members, most of them teachers, have been told their positions will be eliminated or reduced to part-time next year because of declining enrollment and other factors.

The staff members were informed this month they would be impacted by an annual Denver Public Schools shedding of positions known as “reductions in building,” or RIBs. Those with “non-probationary” status — essentially, those with tenure — have 18 months to find another job before the district stops paying them. Those who lack that standing have only until their current contracts expire.

The numbers of staff reductions — which are also driven by school closures, turnarounds, program changes and more — fluctuate greatly from year to year. This year’s 488 cuts are considerably greater than last year’s, but well short of other years.

While DPS has been one of the fastest-growing urban districts in the country, officials expect that growth to slow down. The majority of this year’s cuts are due to decreasing enrollment at specific schools, district officials said.

Several factors are to blame, officials said, including a drop in birth rates during the recession, which is causing kindergarten enrollment to decline.

Gentrification also plays a part: While some Denver neighborhoods are bursting with children due to the construction of new single-family homes, others are experiencing the opposite. As housing prices in gentrifying neighborhoods rise, lower income families are being pushed out and school enrollment is suffering.

The district, which is still the largest in the state, serves about 85,250 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade this year. Next year, DPS officials predict that number will increase 1 percent to 86,250. But the number of students in certain neighborhoods — including near northeast Denver and southwest Denver — is expected to decrease.

Number of RIBs in DPS
2009-10: 482
2010-11: 689
2011-12: 667
2012-13: 750
2013-14: 339
2014-15: 373
2015-16: 488

When schools lose children, they also lose revenue. The state pays school districts a fixed amount of money per student; this year, it’s about $7,600. DPS passes along a portion of that money to the schools based on the number of students each school has.

The schools must then decide how to spend it. If DPS planning officials predict a school will have fewer students next year, the school has to figure out what — or who — to cut.

“Ultimately, the principal is the decisionmaker on what the staffing model needs to be,” said Sarah Marks, the district’s executive director of strategic school support. “But in almost every case, this is a process that’s reached — and decisions are made — through consensus.”

A committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community members is part of that process, Marks said. If a principal ultimately decides the school needs to cut a third-grade teacher, for example, a separate committee of teachers and administrators interviews all of the school’s third-grade teachers to determine which one of them should go.

But Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union has heard concerns that the process doesn’t always work the way it should. Teachers complain of a lack of transparency when it comes to money and staffing decisions.

“No one ever has a true picture of what the true story is,” she said.

The teachers, librarians, assistant principals and facilitators who lost all or part of their positions were informed on Feb. 17. In all, the cuts occurred in 110 DPS schools. (Teachers at the district’s 58 charter schools are not DPS employees and are not subject to the process.) An additional 20 DPS teachers lost their positions this past fall.

More than half of the 488 cuts and reductions are attributed to a loss in enrollment, according to a spreadsheet provided by the district.

But dropping enrollment isn’t the only reason a position can be cut. Teachers can also lose their positions if a school is closed or “turned around,” which often involves hiring a new staff in an effort to boost performance.

If a school changes its program by becoming dual-language, for instance, teachers without that qualification could lose their jobs. And teachers in one-year positions, such as those filling in for others on maternity leave, are also included in the overall number.

About one-fifth of the 488 cuts are attributed to school closures and turnarounds, including the elimination of 15 teaching positions at Barrett Elementary in northeast Denver, which is being closed next year due to low enrollment and consolidated with nearby Columbine Elementary.

Teachers who lost their positions must now find new jobs. The district expects to post more than 1,600 teaching jobs for this coming fall, including at schools that are growing. Marks said it’s likely that most of the affected teachers will land one.

“Our focus right now is helping teachers find opportunities and new positions,” she said.

The district gives affected teachers first crack at DPS job fairs, though Shamburg said it doesn’t often give them a true advantage. If a non-probationary teacher can’t find a new job by the fall, the district will place him or her in a paid position for a year while he or she continues to search.

And if such a teacher hasn’t found a job by the end of that year, he or she will be put on unpaid leave. In January 2014, the teachers union challenged that practice in court. The lawsuit is ongoing.

DPS recently announced that it will cut 157 central-office jobs next year because of state budget constraints and citywide gentrification, which is reducing the amount of extra state money the district receives to educate kids living in poverty. The cuts to the central office are separate from the cuts at individual schools, Marks said, though both are due to tightening school funding.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that teachers whose positions were cut have 18 months to find a new job before the district stops paying them. That provision only applies to “non-probationary” teachers.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.