First Person

Districts face another round of cuts

Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.
Audience members at Aurora's budget town hall asked questions and offered suggestions.

AURORA – They could have been spending their winnings from Oscar bets or dishing with friends about the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.

Instead, nearly 100 parents, teachers and community members gave their Monday evening to the cause of advising Aurora Public Schools board members on how to deal with losing $512 per student if Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2011-12 budget proposal becomes law.

The so-called “budget town hall” for the state’s sixth-largest school district is likely to be replicated in some form across Colorado in coming months, as 178 school districts grapple with the biggest proposed hit to K-12 funding – a total of $332 million – that anyone can recall.

Of course, that’s what they said last year too.

“It is truly the worst budget crisis that Aurora Public Schools has ever faced,” a stern-faced Superintendent John Barry told the group, then added, “We said that last year … ”

The figures may change – last year’s cut in Aurora was $17 million, this year’s target is $25 million – but the process remains largely the same: Grasp the extent of the proposed cut, compile a wide array of possible trims, survey your community and staff about the options they despise the least, proceed cautiously to board budget vote in May.

“We have been doing this for four years,” Barry said. “It is a heck of a way to run a school district.”

State cuts take districts back several years

Hickenlooper’s proposal would drop K-12 education funding to levels last seen in 2007-08.

K-12 budget bar chart

Click on graphic to enlarge.

Since then, as the U.S. economy hit bottom, state lawmakers have taken chunks out of school spending – first by changing the interpretation of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional amendment requiring education funding increase by inflation and enrollment, and then by the more expedient method of outright cutting total education program funding.

That means 2011-12 will likely be the fourth year that K-12 spending has not received what the original interpretation of Amendment 23 says it should. In fact, by that measure, Hickenlooper’s proposal is $836 million short.

Total program funding, the combination of state and local funds used to pay for basic school operations, dropped from $5.6 billion in 2009-10 to $5.4 billion this year. It would further drop to $5.1 billion in 2011-12 under the governor’s plan.

“41 percent of the state budget is in K-12 education,” Hickenlooper told reporters in releasing his proposal Feb. 15. “It’s where the money is … There is no choice.”

Impacts vary by individual school district

The impact of all that has varied by school district. Littleton Public Schools, which also faced declining enrollment in a state where funding is doled out per-pupil, instituted staff furlough days.

Douglas County reaped the benefits of growth until lawmakers chose not to fully fund enrollment increases. Last year, Dougco became one of two large metro-area districts to begin charging students to ride the school bus.

Aurora’s budget situation is neither particularly bad nor particularly good in comparison to other districts.

“We’re basically back to where we were in 2006,” Casey Wardynski, the district’s chief finance officer, told the audience, noting Hickenlooper’s plan means “we’re at about $1,000 per student less than we were in 2009.”

One of Aurora’s key moves to cut $17 million for the current year, or 6 percent of the district’s operating fund, was requiring high school teachers to add a sixth class. The move saved $2.6 million but incurred the wrath of some teachers.

“We’re still trying to make a decision about legal action” against the district, teachers’ union president Brenna Isaacs said Monday. “We believe it was a breach of contract.”

Barry contended the district showed teachers are a priority because the district held on to all non-probationary teachers who wanted to stay and because all teachers received a pay raise, though only 62 percent of district staff did.

“The board clearly made it a prerogative,” he said, motioning to seven school board members seated on stage throughout the two-hour meeting. “They know where the tip of the sword is and it’s in the classroom.”

Budget cuts highlight differences in priorities

If tough budgets strain relations between districts and staffs, they also can highlight a difference in priorities between teachers and parents.

More than 1,200 parents responded to Aurora’s budget survey, listing staff furlough days and increasing the employee share of health care premiums among their top five of 40 potential savings options.

Aurora school board members Jane Barber, front, and Amy Prince listen at Aurora's budget town hall meeting Monday.
Aurora school board members Jane Barber, front, Matt Cook and Amy Prince listen at the district's budget town hall Monday.

In contrast, among 1,454 staff surveyed, the most favored option was implementing early retirement. Increased insurance premiums made the “least favorite” list.

And some teachers winced at suggestions made by parents and community members during Monday’s town hall, including asking educators to volunteer to teach the district’s 23-day summer session known as Fifth Block.

Isaacs said she wasn’t surprised by the responses from parents or staff, including teachers’ apparent lack of outcry over possible furlough days.

“Teachers are recognizing, if there’s going to be pain with regards to these cuts, they feel it needs to be not only shared but visible,” she said. “Students and parents would have to recognize why they’re not in school.”

Barry said some ideas used in other districts won’t work in Aurora. Its high-poverty rate makes it unlikely that charging for busing is a viable option. Furlough days, which could save about $1 million per day, may be more feasible but there are questions about how to implement them equitably since some staff work 180 days and some work 260 days.

He likened the budget process to the game of “whack-a-mole” – many of the options relate and figuring out one piece over here can cause another issue to surface over there.

And, just like in the game, there’s a time limit.

“We’re getting really close to the point where we have to make some decisions,” Barry said.

Find your district cuts

Proposed per-pupil cuts

  • Jeffco: – $475
  • Denver: – $520
  • Dougco: – $465
  • Cherry Creek: – $480
  • Adams 12: – $470
  • Aurora: – $512
  • State average: – $486

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.