Who Is In Charge

Jeffco goes to voters for more money

The Jefferson County school board voted 4-1 Thursday evening to ask district residents for a $39 million revenue increase and a $99 million bond issue to bolster the district’s finances.

Jeffco board meeting
Witnesses testified to the Jeffco school board with this giant timer looming over them.

The board also gave final 4-1 approval to a 2012-13 district budget that cuts spending by about $20 million, the latest in several years of budget cuts.

The two issues are intertwined, because district officials predict that Jeffco could face $43.5 million in reductions in 2013-13 – deeply cutting programs and staff – if voters don’t approve the spending increase.

The meeting ran for more than four hours and was marked by repeated disagreements between conservative member Laura Boggs and her four colleagues, a familiar board dynamic.

Things were exacerbated by the fact that Boggs wasn’t in the boardroom at district headquarters in Golden – she participated by speakerphone. Since she had no visual contact with the rest of the board, she and the others kept verbally tripping over each other when Boggs tried to speak. She was the only no vote on the tax proposal, the budget and approval of the district’s contract with the Jefferson County Education Association.

At one point Boggs said she wished she were in the room, and board President Lesley Dahlkemper replied, “We’d love to have you here at the board meeting.”

The meeting also was extended by a lengthy public testimony session, primarily focused on the proposed bond issue and tax override. Most of the speakers urged the board to support the plan, with members of the large audience waving their hands in the air in shows of support after speakers finished. (Applause is frowned upon, so hand waving is the acceptable alternative.)

Speakers for two opposing citizen groups summarized some of the arguments over the tax election.

Byron Gale of Citizens for Jeffco Schools said the district urgently needs the extra revenue. “We’re eagerly awaiting the green light from the board so we can get on with the campaign,” he said. “With the right grassroots campaign I like our chances.”

But Sheila Atwell of Jeffco Students First questioned whether more spending would help flat achievement and graduation levels. “Do dollars mean better schools? I just don’t see that being the case.”

The tax increase would be used to maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, cover utility costs and restore some cuts, according to district officials. The bond issue would be used for building upgrades.

The net effect of the proposal would be a $14.68 property tax increase for each $100,000 of a home’s value.

District voters last passed a tax increase and bond issue in 2004.

Next year’s district general fund budget will be about $557 million. (The total budget, including all funds, will be about $930 million.) The $20 million shortfall is being made up by continuation of a 3 percent compensation cut for employees, use of $5 million in reserves and $7 million in administrative reductions, among other measures. The budget assumes two furlough days and a four-day reduction in the work year.

Some board members used the discussion to vent about the financial pressures Jeffco faces. “The state finance act needs some revision,” said member Paula Noonan. “The legislature seems to think this is something fantastic,” she added, referring to the fact the state school spending is being held flat this year, rather than being cut again. “We are in a hole, and we are not getting out of the hole.”

Noting projected future cuts for the district, Dahlkemper said, “We want to retain the best and the brightest in Jefferson County. … I worry about how much longer we can hold on to those employees.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.