changing city

Gentrification is impacting north Denver schools. This is how $120,000 could help.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Swansea Elementary students play violins before the grant was announced.

Two elementary schools in working-class north Denver neighborhoods that are feeling the sting of gentrification will share a $120,000 grant to fund a staff member at each school to address some of the challenges facing the changing communities.

Swansea Elementary, located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, will use its $60,000 share of the money to continue to fund its school psychologist. The school was in danger of having to reduce the position from full-time to part-time after rising neighborhood rents caused student enrollment to decline, costing the school state per-pupil funding, said principal Gilberto Munoz.

“Over the last three or four years, rents have really doubled, so it’s pushed people out,” he said Monday after the grant was announced to a crowd of parents and dignitaries packed into the Swansea Elementary gymnasium. “All throughout last year, we saw families leaving.”

Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the adjacent Globeville neighborhood, will use its $60,000 to hire a new family liaison to encourage parents to become involved at the school.

“This has been a desire and a need and a want on our wish list for quite some time,” said principal Rebecca Salomon.

Garden Place is also losing students as housing prices increase, which Salomon said has made it impossible to fund this type of position.

The positions are partly being funded by the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is tasked with overseeing six projects in that part of town, including the expansion of Interstate 70 and the redevelopment of the National Western Center stock show complex. The Mile High United Way is also providing funding as part of an investment in underserved communities.

Some north Denver residents have raised concerns about the projects, which are meant to rejuvenate a historically industrial part of Denver that has suffered ill effects from past civic projects — including the construction of I-25 and I-70, which bifurcated the neighborhoods.

The first of the new projects — improvements to gritty Brighton Boulevard, which runs through Elyria-Swansea — is scheduled to break ground Oct. 13, according to a city spokesman.

The school principals said families aren’t as worried about the projects themselves as they are about how the impending changes will affect their ability to stay in their homes.

Swansea Elementary lost 79 students in the past year as their families moved to more affordable neighborhoods such as Montbello in far northeast Denver or nearby suburbs like Aurora, Munoz said. One family has been given notice to vacate their home because the land it stands on is set to become part of the new and improved National Western Center, he said.

Anna Jones, executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, said the city can’t control how much private landlords charge their tenants — but it can help soften the financial blow to schools with shrinking student populations.

“The thinking was these positions would be able to fill in the gaps that are created through the rapid changes these neighborhoods are experiencing,” she said.

She said the city decided to invest in the schools because “schools are where that story begins.”

At the event, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the schools “the heart of the community.”

“This is a community that is undergoing a lot of change right now,” he said. “Some of that change is wonderful and promising, but some of that change is scary.”

Boasberg said the ultimate goal is to make sure the changes benefit everyone — and the $120,000 donation is a step toward ensuring that happens.

The funding is solely for this school year, according to a DPS spokeswoman.

The two schools serve an at-risk population. More than 90 percent of students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Garden Place, 46 percent of students were English language learners. At Swansea, 55 percent were.

Most students who attend the schools come from the neighborhoods, according to the district.

“Because of the pressures they’re facing in their own lives, they bring it to school,” said Munoz, explaining why he decided to use the money to fully fund Swansea’s psychologist.

“Some of the things they’re facing would challenge most adults. So teaching them how to manage that is essential — and having a professional that does that for you is really helpful.”

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscience I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”