painful choices

Gifted and talented center at Wheat Ridge High School on chopping block as part of Jeffco budget cuts

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, one of two gifted and talented teachers at Wheat Ridge High School, leads a discussion. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

Cutting off district funding to a popular gifted and talented program at Wheat Ridge High School is one of the contentious steps Jeffco Public Schools has proposed to cope with its budget crisis.

The gifted and talented center program enrolls 128 of the school’s 1,200 students, according to district officials. About three-quarters of those gifted students choice in from other district high schools, a sign of the program’s stature.

Some parents say the center at the high school has been critical not just to their children’s academic success, but to their social and emotional well-being.

More than 700 community members have signed an online petition opposing the elimination of the Wheat Ridge High-based program. Numerous signers wrote that its helped their children overcome social problems, gain a sense of belonging and get needed help.

The Jefferson County district, the state’s second largest, is considering more than $20 million in spending cuts, including the closure of five elementary schools. District officials say the cuts are needed to keep a school board pledge to improve teacher salaries after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

In what is expected to be an emotional meeting Thursday, the school board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could pull certain items out and continue funding them.

Besides cutting Wheat Ridge High School’s two gifted and talented teachers for a savings of $150,000, the district is also considering the elimination of four gifted and talented resource teachers who work at schools throughout the district. That cut, which would save $350,000, would leave 12 roving gifted and talented teachers in the 86,000-student district.

The proposed budget cuts wouldn’t affect gifted and talented classroom teachers at the 15 elementary and middle schools with gifted and talented centers. Wheat Ridge houses the only gifted and talented high school center in the district.

District officials have said Wheat Ridge High School would be allowed to assume the cost of the two teachers if it wanted to continue the gifted program, but noted the school already pays for some expenses associated with the program itself. Principal Griff Wirth could not be reached for comment.

While some of the district’s other proposed cuts would disproportionately affect low-income students — including the  elementary school closures — that is not the case with the potential gifted and talented cuts.

That’s because Jeffco’s gifted and talented program, like many elsewhere in Colorado and the nation, skews toward white middle- and upper-income students.

Only 12 percent of the district’s 11,500 gifted and talented students receive free or discounted school meals — a proxy for poverty — compared to 32 percent of students districtwide. Students of color make up 19 percent of the district’s gifted and talented pool and 33 percent of students overall.

Parent Jaime Peters, who is also an elementary teacher in the district, said the Wheat Ridge center program has been life-changing for her 10th-grade son, who is both gifted and on the autism spectrum. It’s vaulted him from average grades to straight As, helped him take on leadership activities and most important, make friends.

“It’s been huge,” she said.

A position paper from the National Association for Gifted Children says research hasn’t shown that gifted children face more mental health problems than non-gifted children. Still, it notes that characteristics associated with giftedness can be risk factors and that some studies have shown that gifted students are less likely to ask for help.

Peters, who also has an eighth-grade son who’s gifted, said that gifted students can’t just be slotted into honors classes or International Baccalaureate programs and expected to thrive.

She said of her sons, “They’re two years ahead academically and two years behind socially and that seems to be the thing with (gifted and talented) kids.”

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.