Budget blues

Is Jeffco Public Schools about to cut programs that haven’t gotten a chance to succeed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Jeffco Public Schools is proposing cuts to literacy intervention teachers and social emotional learning specialists.

In its bid to cut $20 million from next year’s budget, Jeffco Public Schools is looking to eliminate two programs that have posted promising results so far.

One is a three-year-old program to help struggling readers at 20 schools that have large numbers of students that need help. The other, modeled on work gaining momentum nationwide, is a new program focused on helping students develop social and emotional skills.

The proposal to cut 20 literacy interventionists and 31 social and emotional learning specialists would save $4.21 million. At what is expected to be an emotional and contentious meeting Thursday, the board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could decide to pull these items out and continue funding them.

District officials say both programs have made an impact but are among a raft of cuts necessary for the school board to make good on its promise to increase teacher pay after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

“It isn’t fun, but hopefully we can make some hard choices so we don’t have to do this in the future,” said district spokeswoman Diana Wilson.

Wilson said the literacy program has helped struggling readers — mostly second- and third-graders — make bigger gains in reading than similar students who didn’t get the extra help. Still, she said it costs about $4,000 per child.

“We know that’s it’s working,” she said. “We can see the impact, but it’s very expensive.”

The district’s social and emotional learning initiative for middle-schoolers has only been in place for about six months. It includes restorative justice programs, mindfulness training, anger-management classes and skill-building seminars. Administrators leading the program say it’s based on a growing body of evidence showing that efforts to improve students’ mental health pay academic and health dividends.

Student Services Director Jon Widmier said the extra social and emotional staff have helped the district get to a point where it can help kids proactively, instead of reacting when there’s a crisis.

“To lose (the specialists) is to really lose the foundation that could have some long-term effects on suicide risk … or even dropout rates,” he said.

Parent Shawna Fritzler, whose daughter is in seventh-grade at Manning School in Golden, said middle school is a time when kids need extra support because of changing bodies, friendships and school expectations.

“With the hormone overload, these kids are losing their minds,” she said. “This has been an amazing addition. I personally would like to see that program grow rather than be cut.”

Ezra Aldern, who serves as the social emotional learning specialist at an alternative middle school in Jeffco called Connections Learning Center, said suspensions declined 50 percent from the first semester of 2015-16 to the first semester of 2016-17. He credits the dip to two programs he’s launched.

One is a restorative justice program that allows students to work out conflicts in an adult-facilitated meeting and the other is a Saturday morning class he runs for students who’ve gotten in trouble. Participants make breakfast together, do a fitness activity and take part in a lesson to improve communication, conflict resolution or some other skill.

Aldern, a licensed social worker, said it’s important to remember that students aren’t hard-wired to have good social and emotional skills, especially in a technology-driven age when many students spend hours online. He said it would take at least three years to have a solid set of data to prove the program’s worth.

He’s not alone.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs for the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, said it’s unfortunate when funding gets cut before initiatives are given enough time to work.

“People aren’t very patient,” she said.

She said she’s seen social and emotional learning programs survive in other large districts that have slashed spending, including the 380,000-student Chicago Public Schools.

“It has to be something that’s identified by the superintendent, the board and community in order for it to withstand budget cuts,” said Schlinger, whose organization promotes social and emotional learning through research and advocacy.

Schlinger cited plenty of good work happening in Colorado around social and emotional learning. She mentioned Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District as two districts that have prioritized such efforts, and the Denver-based Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and the Boulder-based PassageWorks as two nonprofits that have supported such work.

Unlike in Jeffco, Denver voters approved new school funding in November, including $15 million that will be used partly to pay for new school social workers and psychologists.

Jeffco administrators say middle school principals will have the option to keep their social emotional learning specialists using money from their school budgets instead of central district money, but it would require them to cut something else. Each specialist costs about $60,000, though it varies depending on the type of license they have.

As for the school board reconsidering the proposed cuts, Widmier said the board has “impossible decisions” to make.

“It’s tough to play lifeboat,” he said, “and decide which one is the most important.”

Take back

Higher property values mean Colorado is getting back millions from schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Colorado State Capitol

With student enrollment lower than anticipated and property tax revenues up in many districts, the state could get back as much as $77 million originally allocated for schools this year.

That’s a small portion of Colorado’s $7 billion K-12 education budget, and that money could be used to help fund Gov. Jared Polis’ universal full-day kindergarten plan. But some lawmakers want school districts, not the state, to control at least a portion of that money.

Citing the recent Denver teacher strike and concerns over school funding, the Colorado House voted Friday to let schools keep $12.9 million of that money. As early as Wednesday, the state Senate must either approve the amended Senate Bill 128 or send it back to a conference committee made up of the budget committee members.

It’s the first salvo in what could become a contentious debate over how the state funds schools.

Under Colorado law, the legislature determines how much money school districts should get for each student, with the state and school districts picking up a portion of the costs. If local districts raise more money, the state pays a correspondingly smaller amount. This year, school districts raised a collective $56.1 million more than predicted from local sources, mostly property tax revenue.

At the same time, schools are educating fewer students than predicted. Per pupil funding is based on estimates made months in advance. Enrollment for the current school year is 1,056 fewer than forecast, with at-risk student enrollment 9,893 fewer than the estimate.

The $77 million — or $64.1 million if the House amendment stands — could help fund full-day kindergarten, which is estimated to cost $227 million next year.

Or it could go into next year’s school finance act, which lays out how much money schools will get for 2019-20. Or it could go into the general fund, where it could be used for other needs.

But asking school districts to return money midway through the year can be difficult “because districts hire teachers for the start of the school year and then it’s really hard halfway through to say, ‘Oh, we can’t pay for you anymore,’” said Matt Cook, director of advocacy and public policy for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Last year, the state took back $104 million. With an increase in local revenues of $97 million, the total cut was only about $7 million, compared to a $21 million impact this year if the state keeps the full amount. Some of last year’s money was later put toward school safety measures.

The House amendment keeps average per-pupil funding at $8,137, instead of reducing it by about $15 on average as the Joint Budget Committee proposed.

The impact of these proposed changes varies among school districts, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. Some districts have seen larger changes in enrollment than others, and some districts raise a large portion of their revenue from local sources, while others are more dependent on state funding.

“[Y]ou’re all of a sudden again going to have a whole different group of kind of winners and losers in this process,” she said.

There’s also a political consideration for Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Everybody who ran for election this last year ran on funding education better, and that they were looking to try to solve the problem,” Rainey said.

In fact, attack ads in the 2018 election often cited votes on school finance amendments or promises to increase school funding.

The House amendment passed on a voice voice with apparent broad support. It replaced an earlier amendment that would have left all $77 million with the school districts.

“I think our next step for us would be what’s the financial, fiscal implication of the amendment and then wait to see what we hear from our staff,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget committee member.

How this relatively tiny slice of the pie is carved up could be instructive, going forward, education observers say.

“That’s always the big question every year, right?” Cook said. “How do we pay for everything? This year you’ve got the pressure for full-day kindergarten, so I think it’s going to be a very tough budget negotiation.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.