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.”

School Finance

Why some IPS schools are facing big budget cuts, and others are mostly spared from the pain

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, one of the larger cuts in the district.

At campuses across Indianapolis Public Schools, principals are grappling with a painful prospect: cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their school budgets. And that may be just the beginning.

The district is looking to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, including about $8.9 million that will come from budgets for schools and certified staff such as teachers, according to a preliminary budget document. Officials declined to give school-by-school breakdowns until they are finalized later this summer.

The district initially planned to fill its budget gap by asking voters for nearly $1 billion in extra funding in May, but after the proposal received little support, the board first shrunk and then delayed the request. The cuts that begin next year could continue if the state’s largest district isn’t able to find other savings or win voter support for a referendum to increase taxes and school funding in November.

“We have the hope of a referendum,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager.

Chalkbeat has the details on what types of schools are expected to lose the most, what schools might cut, and what this means for the future of the district.

Big schools — including high schools — are taking the brunt of the cuts.

When it comes to cutting spending, large schools are carrying more of the burden, according to the preliminary documents. That includes middle and high schools, as well as some elementary schools. At some of the district’s smallest campuses, however, officials say budgets are already too lean for significant cuts.

Indianapolis Public Schools sends money to schools using a formula known as student-based allocation, which gives them funding based on how many students they enroll and student needs. But every school also has a baseline amount of money district officials believe they need to operate.

Small schools that serve wide grade spans, which might only have one class at each grade level, often get extra money to be sure they reach the minimum. In contrast, large campuses typically get enough from the per student formula to be above baseline. On a basic level, the district budget is based around the idea that it costs less per child to educate students in large, efficient schools.

Because of that approach, campuses that were already at minimum funding levels won’t see significant cuts, Young said. On the flip side, however, bigger campuses are shouldering a larger share of the cuts.

That could be bad news for the four high schools that will remain open in the fall. The schools will be among the largest campuses in the district, and they are expected to face significant cuts.

Last month, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that cuts would not damage the effort to revamp high schools because, in addition to baseline funding, the schools will have donations from private partners such as Salesforce.

“Obviously, we won’t have all the resources that we’d like to have,” he said, “but we will be in a good position come August of 2018.”

Magnet schools and career and technical education get extra money — and extra cuts.

On top of their regular budgets, choice programs, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education, receive millions of extra dollars each year. That spending is also on the chopping block as the district cuts costs.

But because the district had already planned spending on those programs and some areas are easier to reduce than others, cuts won’t be spread evenly, said Aisha Humphries, director of budget and strategy for the district. In Montessori schools, for example, instructional assistants are integral to the model, she said. In order to cut that, the district would have to change the school model.

“When you do budget cuts, it may be that we want to cut equally and make everybody feel the pain equally,” Humphries said, “but you may not be able to do that.”

But there are other areas where the district can more easily cut back, Humphries said, such as by reducing the number of foreign languages offered in middle school.

Schools are giving up technology, teachers, and other staff.

As the district cuts budgets, principals ultimately decide what painful trade offs to make. Under the new budgeting approach the district rolled out this year, principals are given a set amount of money, and they have control over how they spend most it. If a principal wants to make class sizes slightly larger to pay for a school social worker, for example, they can. When it comes to budget cuts, the approach is the same.

“They are still in the driver’s seat,” Young said.

When schools got budgets earlier this year, they were built on the assumption that the district would win the May referendum. But principals knew that additional funding might not come through, and some planned for potential cuts when they created their budgets, Young said.

When principal Jeremy Baugh learned School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, he already had some potential cuts in mind. The school will cut back on new technology, instructional supplies, and professional development. Baugh also won’t go through with his plan to hire two new educators.

School 107, which enrolls just over 600 students, is expected to have one of the larger budget cuts in the district. But in part because the school is growing and will get more money for those new students, he doesn’t expect to cut current staff.

“We didn’t have to make significant cuts that were impacting staff right now,” Baugh said. “So we felt pretty lucky.”

School Finance

How much are Indianapolis teachers paid? Here are the highest and lowest paid districts in the city

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

As teachers across the country rally for more education funding and higher salaries, policymakers and the public are paying renewed attention to how much educators are paid.

Nationwide, stagnant teacher pay coupled with plentiful well-paying openings in other fields means that it’s even harder for principals and administrators to fill open positions. For some teachers, low pay is one reason they leave the classroom altogether, whether to become administrators or find another career.

In Indiana, cash-strapped districts often struggle to pay for raises even for their current staff — making it difficult to retain teachers. Educators in Indianapolis have lots of schools to choose from, and teachers can increase their pay by heading to nearby districts.

Educators in Indiana school districts made an average of about $48,743 last year, according to the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board. Pay is higher in districts in the state’s capitol, but it varies widely, with educators in the lowest paying district earning about $11,000 less on average than teachers in the top paid district. (The board only collects data on districts with teachers unions so it does not include average pay for teachers in charter schools.)

When teachers with particularly high demand skills switch jobs, they can also boost their earning by moving higher on the pay scale.

Average teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

One reason why average pay might be higher in some districts than others is because the pay scale is higher. Starting pay in Beech Grove Schools, for example, is $38,000 per year. In Speedway Schools, a district with consistently high pay, teachers earn a minimum of $44,252.

Minimum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

The gap is even wider for experienced educators. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the pay scale sets the maximum salary at $72,740. That’s almost $14,000 less than the max pay for teachers in Speedway — $86,702. (Some teachers may earn more because they are still paid based on older pay scales with higher caps.)

Maximum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

But there’s another reason why some districts have lower average pay than others — they have more inexperienced teachers. Both Beech Grove and Indianapolis Public Schools have higher floors and ceiling for pay then they did in 2013-2014. Nonetheless, the average pay in those districts has declined, likely because they have more inexperienced teachers with lower salaries.

This year, both districts have relatively high numbers of teachers in their first year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. In Indianapolis Public Schools, nearly 10 percent of certified educators are new to the classroom. In both Beech Grove and Warren Township Schools, about 7 percent of educators are new.