Taking attendance

State student enrollment grows 1.6 percent

Preschool through 12th grade enrollment in Colorado increased by 13,438 students in the current school year – the rough equivalent of adding a district the size of Littleton.

The increase was 1.6 percent, about what officials had expected, and it brought total enrollment to 876,999. Statewide school enrollment has increased for 24 consecutive years.

As expected, the new count put Denver Public Schools in the top spot with 86,043 students, ahead of the 85,983 in Jeffco, which has been the state’s largest district for several years. (Jeffco put its own spin on the data, issuing a news release Tuesday afternoon noting that it remains the largest district based on K-12 enrollment, not counting preschool.)

Denver’s increase was 3.2 percent, but the largest percentage increase was posted by the Falcon district in El Paso County, which gained 3,402 students, or 22 percent. The Dougco and Aurora districts also gained more than 1,000 students each from the prior year.

Among larger districts, the Adams 12-Five Star Schools dropped 2.4 percent to 42,230 students. The state Charter School Institute, which supervises charters not overseen by school districts, lost 1,281 students, or 10.9 percent. The latest enrollment count also found 16,215 students enrolled in online program, a 2.5 percent drop from 2012-13.

Some of the enrollment shifts were attributable to charter schools moving between districts.

The enrollment figures highlight the size disparities among school districts.

The top 15 districts, from DPS to Pueblo City (which has 17,990 students), enroll a total of 596,868 kids — 68 percent of the state’s total enrollment. At the other end of the spectrum, 136 districts and other education agencies serve only 7.9 percent of total students and have individual enrollments of fewer than 2,000. There are 112 agencies with fewer than 1,000 students each.

All top 15 districts gained enrollment except for Adams 12 and Colorado Springs 11. Falcon’s significant growth moved it into the top 15, jumping over Brighton, Thompson and Littleton. Each of those three districts grew slightly, as did Harrison and Westminster, the only other two districts with more than 10,000 students.

Statewide minority enrollment was calculated at 44.9 percent, compared to 44.4 percent last year. Among ethnic groups, the number of students identified as multiracial increased 8.5 percent, and the number categorized as Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander increased 7 percent.

The enrollment count found 42.2 percent, or 356,890 students, were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch this year, up slightly from 41.9 percent in 2012-13. That designation is used as the proxy to designate a student as academically at-risk, which also is a factor in the funding formula.

Enrollment key to funding

The annual state enrollment figures are closely watched because pupil counts are a key factor in determining how much state aid school districts receive. The figures released Tuesday by the Department of Education are “headcounts” of actual students, regardless of whether they’re full- or part-time. For funding purposes headcounts are translated into a number called full-time equivalent.

Because enrollment is higher than the number estimated when the 2013-14 state budget was approved last spring, districts could receive a mid-year budget increase of up to $55 million. The current budget for basic school operations is about $5.5 billion.

The enrollment is count is based on attendance figures gathered during a small window of days around Oct. 1 that are then audited and compiled by CDE.

That system long has been questioned for its accuracy, and there is growing interest among legislators to switch to a system called average daily membership, which calculates and averages enrollment across the school year. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for that in last week’s state-of-the-state speech.

A bill on the issue is expected during the current legislative session, but nothing has been introduced yet. Making the switch won’t necessarily be easy, as the necessary computer upgrades could be costly. School districts, especially those that could lose enrollment under the new system, also may be skeptical about such a switch.

More enrollment stats

Eleven districts showed growth of 10 percent or higher. In addition to Falcon, Cheyenne Mountain at 10.2 percent was the only larger district in that category.

Some 81 districts and other entities lost enrollment. Other than Adams 12, the only other Denver metro district to register a noticeable decline was Englewood, which dropped 4.9 percent. (Sheridan dropped by one student, well less than 1 percent.)

The other declining districts were generally small, where a fluctuation of a handful of students can make a noticeable percentage difference.

Here are some enrollment trends by grade over the last decade:

  • Preschool enrollment has increased 58.7 percent
  • Enrollment increased by more than 20 percent in grades K-13 and 28.5 percent in grade 12
  • Enrollment increased only 2.3 percent in grade 9 and by less than 10 percent in grades 7 and 8

The state’s smallest district, Agate on Interstate 70 north of Limon, reported 12 students this year, up from 10 in 2012-13.

Of Colorado’s 10 smallest districts or units, five reported growth (Agate, Creede, Pritchett, Silverton and the San Juan BOCES), and five lost enrollment (Campo, Hinsdale County, Kim, Liberty and Plainview). Each has 80 or fewer students.

The count recorded 45,971 students in private schools, about 5,000 fewer than in 2012-13 and down 9.3 percent over the last five years. However the number of home-schooled students was up to 7,489, a 30.4 percent increase from the prior year.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.

School Finance

IPS bid for more money is ‘the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever,’ state official says

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry raised concerns about referendums IPS plans to ask voters to approve in May.

An Indiana education official is calling out Indianapolis Public Schools for how the district has handled a recent proposal to collect almost $1 billion from taxpayers over the next eight years.

Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education and an Indianapolis resident, said the district’s plan to ask voters this May to approve two referendums to increase funding has not been transparent. The proposed tax increase is also way too high, he said.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” Hendry, a Democrat, said Wednesday at the board’s February meeting.

So far, few education advocates or community organizations have been vocal in their support for the referendums, which total $936 million. Voters have raised concerns about the amount their taxes would increase and how the money would be spent.

The district has said one referendum would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for teacher raises, special education services, transportation and regular maintenance. The other asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

Hendry said the district has not provided voters with enough information about what the new money would be used for, instead offering “general statements.” He said he thinks the district should already be able to cover those costs, such as transportation and facilities, with its existing state and local funding.

“Our entire state budget for education is $7 billion each year,” he said.

IPS, like other districts, receives state, local, and federal dollars. Hendry pointed out that under Indiana’s school funding formula, urban districts already receive more money per-student than other districts, although that is supposed to support students who might be more costly to educate than those in suburban or rural districts. Urban schools typically have more students living in poverty, learning English or with disabilities.

The referendums would come with considerable tax increases for those living within IPS boundaries, Hendry said, and would disproportionately affect low-income families.

Hendry didn’t limit his criticisms to IPS. He urged Indiana lawmakers to freeze all school funding referendums and set up a committee this summer to study how to improve the efficiency of district spending, as well as how to address “long-standing” problems with ensuring teachers are adequately paid.

Going forward, Hendry said referendums need more oversight. He proposed that the state board or mayors and city councils should approve them — a measure he said would increase accountability.

More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases since state lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2008. About 60 percent of them have been successful, including six in Marion County.