Jeffco board OKs general fund on split vote

GOLDEN — The Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education, on a 3-2 vote Thursday night, approved how the district will spend its largest pool of revenue for the 2014-15 school year.

The board split over how and by how much the state’s second largest school district should equitably fund its charter schools.

Board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman opposed the additional funding for charter schools — which was raised in an earlier vote Thursday night from a tentative $3.7 million to $5.5 million — and voted against the general fund budget as a whole.

Dahlkemper told her board colleagues she could support the $3.7 million for charters, pending a recommendation from Fellman to form a committee to discuss how to further evaluate how to increase funding to charter schools in subsequent years. The board majority — John Newkirk, Julie Williams, and Ken Witt — bucked the proposal,wanting to increase the funding this year.

The board, at the request of district staff, did unanimously approve tentatively increasing compensation for teachers by more than $4 million, pending final negotiations with the Jeffco teachers union. The total budget for compensation is now set at about $18 million.

Between increasing charter school funding and tentatively increasing teachers compensation, Jeffco finance chief Lorie Gillis warned the board the decisions they made Thursday could negatively impact the budget for the next several years if funding from the state does not continue to improve.

That could mean the district will face spending down its reserves or face budget cuts by the 2016 school year.

Further, the budget, Gillis said, does not address important issues like capital construction, beefing up technology and infrastructure, and improving the district’s choice system — a recent board priority.

Altogether, the suburban school district’s total budget for next year will be about $1.02 billion, which is broken into several different funds and expenses. The district’s general fund is the largest portion of the district’s entire budget.

The board unanimously approved mostly technical changes to the district’s other funds in subsequent votes.

The budget, despite a ballooning piggy bank, has been one of many ongoing conflicts between the board’s conservative majority and a fraction of the suburban community’s parents and teachers.

The district is expecting an increase of about $360 per pupil. Almost every department and school will see an increase in their bottom line.

In April, the board requested the district provide more money to the district’s charter schools — which claim they aren’t getting their fair share of local tax dollars voters have approved through mill levy questions since 1999.

In the budget that was presented to the board earlier this month, the district allocated an additional $3.7 million for the district’s 15 charter schools.

That money would close the discrepancy by about half. The final budget will close the gap by about three-fourths.

At the board’s first public hearing on June 5, charter school parents and activists asked the board, given the increase of state funding, close the gap completely “one and for all.”

“No one who has read the research would now dispute that there is a sizable discrepancy between the amount of funding Jeffco makes available to students attending its charter schools and the amount it makes available to identical students attending neighborhood schools,” said Nathan Drake, a Jeffco parent and member of the Jeffco Charter School Consortium. “As board members whose duty is to all of Jeffco’s children, you should never lose sight of the fact that this fundamental unfairness exists. The sooner you fully address it, the better.”

Parents who previously organized the district’s bond and mill campaigns said providing more funding to charter schools to make up the difference thwarts the will of the voters. The district and board — albeit comprised of a different majority at the time — made an explicit promises to Jeffco voters: the money would only be used to maintain the status quo.

Board member Jill Fellman, at the June 5 board meeting, suggested, to the ire of some, the charter schools ask the county’s voters for their own additional tax revenue.

In a move that increased tension, the board’s majority also scrapped an initial idea to expand Jeffco’s free full-day kindergarten to more schools to the tune of $300,000.

“You have been asked repeatedly to consider opportunities, such as an income-based sliding scale like Denver’s program, to allow more equitable access to full-day kindergarten,” said Tina Gurdikian, a parent who campaigned in 2012 for the mill and who is now advocating for the expansion of free full-day kindergarten, at the June 5 meeting. “I see from this budget presentation that there is no provision whatsoever for for full-day kindergarten. This concerns me considering 92 percent of budget survey respondents want full-day kindergarten — and the benefits are well-documented.”

In actuality, 71 percent of survey respondents said they supported expanding full day kindergarten.

Part of the board majority’s rationale for not expanding the full-day kindergarten program was the lack of localized evidence that the program increases student achievement, despite a groundswell of evidence from across the nation that it does.

According to district budget officials, Jeffco would have been able to fund more full-day kindergarten seats if the board reversed a previous vote to suspended the district’s participation in a childhood readiness evaluation known as TS Gold.

Littleton parent Katie Beyerlein said Thursday night the state mandate to implement TS Gold for kindergarten dollars wasn’t fair and suggested the district apply for a waiver.

“Sacrificing student privacy for money is an unwinnable situation,” she said.

However, the deadline to apply for the money has already passed, district officials said.

Previously, parents and teachers who have been a part of a pilot program for TS Gold have told the board TS Gold provided them useful information and an individual learning plan for students.

Board members Dahlkemper and Newkirk, who are generally on opposing sides of issues, attempted to find some compromise around expanding full day kindergarten, another sticking point, however a resolution never came to fruition.

Because a school district’s budget is largely based on per pupil funding, which is determined in October, and local tax revenue, which is factored only after the June 30 deadline, they are allowed to revise their budget up until Jan. 31.