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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.