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.

Find your district cuts

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.

Proposed per-pupil cuts

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

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 JulieMarie Shepherd 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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”