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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.