tough cuts

Hundreds of Denver teachers to lose positions due to falling enrollment at their schools

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post
Melisa Piedra-Jara and her sister Jennifer pass time on the Barrett Elementary playground in 2015. Barrett is closing next year and will lose 15 teaching positions.

Nearly 500 Denver school staff members, most of them teachers, have been told their positions will be eliminated or reduced to part-time next year because of declining enrollment and other factors.

The staff members were informed this month they would be impacted by an annual Denver Public Schools shedding of positions known as “reductions in building,” or RIBs. Those with “non-probationary” status — essentially, those with tenure — have 18 months to find another job before the district stops paying them. Those who lack that standing have only until their current contracts expire.

The numbers of staff reductions — which are also driven by school closures, turnarounds, program changes and more — fluctuate greatly from year to year. This year’s 488 cuts are considerably greater than last year’s, but well short of other years.

While DPS has been one of the fastest-growing urban districts in the country, officials expect that growth to slow down. The majority of this year’s cuts are due to decreasing enrollment at specific schools, district officials said.

Several factors are to blame, officials said, including a drop in birth rates during the recession, which is causing kindergarten enrollment to decline.

Gentrification also plays a part: While some Denver neighborhoods are bursting with children due to the construction of new single-family homes, others are experiencing the opposite. As housing prices in gentrifying neighborhoods rise, lower income families are being pushed out and school enrollment is suffering.

The district, which is still the largest in the state, serves about 85,250 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade this year. Next year, DPS officials predict that number will increase 1 percent to 86,250. But the number of students in certain neighborhoods — including near northeast Denver and southwest Denver — is expected to decrease.

Number of RIBs in DPS
2009-10: 482
2010-11: 689
2011-12: 667
2012-13: 750
2013-14: 339
2014-15: 373
2015-16: 488

When schools lose children, they also lose revenue. The state pays school districts a fixed amount of money per student; this year, it’s about $7,600. DPS passes along a portion of that money to the schools based on the number of students each school has.

The schools must then decide how to spend it. If DPS planning officials predict a school will have fewer students next year, the school has to figure out what — or who — to cut.

“Ultimately, the principal is the decisionmaker on what the staffing model needs to be,” said Sarah Marks, the district’s executive director of strategic school support. “But in almost every case, this is a process that’s reached — and decisions are made — through consensus.”

A committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community members is part of that process, Marks said. If a principal ultimately decides the school needs to cut a third-grade teacher, for example, a separate committee of teachers and administrators interviews all of the school’s third-grade teachers to determine which one of them should go.

But Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union has heard concerns that the process doesn’t always work the way it should. Teachers complain of a lack of transparency when it comes to money and staffing decisions.

“No one ever has a true picture of what the true story is,” she said.

The teachers, librarians, assistant principals and facilitators who lost all or part of their positions were informed on Feb. 17. In all, the cuts occurred in 110 DPS schools. (Teachers at the district’s 58 charter schools are not DPS employees and are not subject to the process.) An additional 20 DPS teachers lost their positions this past fall.

More than half of the 488 cuts and reductions are attributed to a loss in enrollment, according to a spreadsheet provided by the district.

But dropping enrollment isn’t the only reason a position can be cut. Teachers can also lose their positions if a school is closed or “turned around,” which often involves hiring a new staff in an effort to boost performance.

If a school changes its program by becoming dual-language, for instance, teachers without that qualification could lose their jobs. And teachers in one-year positions, such as those filling in for others on maternity leave, are also included in the overall number.

About one-fifth of the 488 cuts are attributed to school closures and turnarounds, including the elimination of 15 teaching positions at Barrett Elementary in northeast Denver, which is being closed next year due to low enrollment and consolidated with nearby Columbine Elementary.

Teachers who lost their positions must now find new jobs. The district expects to post more than 1,600 teaching jobs for this coming fall, including at schools that are growing. Marks said it’s likely that most of the affected teachers will land one.

“Our focus right now is helping teachers find opportunities and new positions,” she said.

The district gives affected teachers first crack at DPS job fairs, though Shamburg said it doesn’t often give them a true advantage. If a non-probationary teacher can’t find a new job by the fall, the district will place him or her in a paid position for a year while he or she continues to search.

And if such a teacher hasn’t found a job by the end of that year, he or she will be put on unpaid leave. In January 2014, the teachers union challenged that practice in court. The lawsuit is ongoing.

DPS recently announced that it will cut 157 central-office jobs next year because of state budget constraints and citywide gentrification, which is reducing the amount of extra state money the district receives to educate kids living in poverty. The cuts to the central office are separate from the cuts at individual schools, Marks said, though both are due to tightening school funding.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that teachers whose positions were cut have 18 months to find a new job before the district stops paying them. That provision only applies to “non-probationary” teachers.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.