Stepping Back

Proposed Aurora budget cuts not as drastic as originally thought

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools’ budget situation is not as precarious as previously thought, causing the district to step back from more drastic scenarios such as eliminating full-day kindergarten, cutting sports and clubs, and increasing staff-to-student ratios.

Instead, the district is proposing eliminating late-start Wednesdays to save on transportation, changing the way it gives money to certain schools and reducing health care options for teachers and other employees.

School board members got a preview of the budget package Tuesday night.

One reason for the shift is that Aurora’s budget decline would not be as drastic as initially feared under the most recent school funding proposal at the state legislature.

Superintendent Rico Munn said that the budget decrease will be less than the $31 million previously thought.

Although the legislative budget is looking better for Colorado school districts than it did a few months ago, Aurora is still working to shrink its budget because enrollment projections continue to show a downward trend. In the current school year, the district recorded the largest enrollment decline in decades. Demographic changes in the city mean the decline will continue.

“This wasn’t about budget cutting,” Munn said. “It really had to be about redesigning the budget. It wasn’t going to be good enough to cut here and cut there.”

The transportation department will save more than $1 million from not having to use contractors to help shuttle students on late-start Wednesdays. Having one health care provider for employees instead of two will save the district about $2.3 million.

It appears that one possible move — furlough days — will no longer be necessary.

The district will present a draft of the full budget to the board next month and the board is expected to approve it in June. Tuesday’s presentation highlighted the broader work and did not go into all the details.

Under the proposal, the district’s division of Equity in Learning would shrink its budget by changing what the division gives to schools. The division, created as one of the reforms Munn brought to the district, was due for a review to evaluate if it was working as intended.

The evaluation results were used to guide how cuts were proposed for the division. Instead of providing an array of district-level help for improving schools, the division will narrow the help it offers. Instead of offering district-level teacher training, the division will focus on school-level opportunities.

The district also will keep the college preparation International Baccalaureate program that was considered at one point for cuts. Instead, the district is changing how schools get money to offer the program.

In another example, Munn, who previously worked as an attorney, told the board that after reviewing the school board’s contracts with three schools, he determined the schools had been getting too much money for several years. The schools, called pilot schools, were created with the teacher’s union in 2007 to test reforms and school-level autonomy.

This fall, the schools — William Smith High School, Fulton Academy of Excellence and Lyn Knoll Elementary — will start receiving less money. For future years, the district is creating a task force that will recommend a better way to fund those schools.

“We kind of have to almost have a blank slate and have a conversation around what we need in order to either maintain these programs or have a transparent way of allocating to these programs,” Munn said. “Ultimately the board will have to make a decision whether different program types should be funded with a certain model based upon either performance expectations or program design. What we can’t really have happen is we can’t have it be an unpredictable amount.”

The district also highlighted two new contracts that will help for future changes to the budget. Massachusetts-based School by Design will work with three middle schools to find new ways for the schools to use their existing budgets to make changes that could improve student performance. The three middle schools were part of another pilot that was meant to change middle schools in Aurora.

The group has worked with several school districts across the country and has highlighted its efforts in the Thompson School District in Colorado.

Jeri Crispe, director of secondary education in Thompson, said the group helped schools rearrange schedules to find more joint planning time for teachers as the district prepares to transition to a competency-based learning model, which in some districts allows students to move through through classes and grade levels when they prove they’ve learned what they need to learn, instead of after a specific amount of time.

Crispe said teachers and school leaders were involved in the work with School by Design, and said the district still has a good relationship with the company.

Another consultant, Communities in Schools, will work with the district to find community groups that can provide more resources to Aurora schools to alleviate some need for district resources.

School Finance

The race is on to convince voters to give more money to Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Lexus Balanzar, a campaign worker for Stand for Children, is making the case for voters to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools.

With less than two months until Election Day, the effort to pass two referendums to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools is gaining momentum. Almost every day, campaign workers are fanning out across Indianapolis to seek support from voters. And Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is stopping by community meetings across the district to make his case that the district needs taxpayers’ help.

This multi-pronged approach illustrates how high the stakes are for the district, which aims to raise $272 million to prevent an even more dire financial situation.

The district first announced plans to ask voters for nearly $1 billion from taxpayers 10 months ago. Since then, the request was cut down, then the vote was delayed to rally more support. The district ultimately came to a final reduced request, which appears to be more palatable to community leaders and has won the support of the Indy Chamber. There is no organized opposition to the referendums, and a previous critic, the MIBOR Realtor Association, now supports them.

But the district ultimately needs the support of voters in addition to power brokers. The key to a successful referendum campaign is reaching out to both hyper-engaged voters and those who are less tuned in to local issues, said Andrew Downs, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

When Ferebee presented last Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, for example, he was reaching members of the community who will likely tell friends and neighbors about the referendums, said Downs.

“They’re voters who will reach out to other people,” he said. “They are voters who typically have a network that will be activated in this case in support of the referendums.”

During the campaign for the planned May referendums, district leaders were juggling other initiatives that drew attention from the tax measures. But Ferebee is now front and center in the effort to win over voters. In a crowded banquet hall last week, Ferebee made the case for increasing funding to a group of Rotarians who appeared largely sympathetic. His low-key jokes drew friendly laughter. But the core of his argument was that the district needs more money to pay for safety improvements at schools and increase teacher pay.

When teacher pay is low, Ferebee said, the district struggles to retain and recruit teachers. It’s forced to rely on substitutes, and students suffer. “We know that our educators are so impactful in our lives,” he said. “We’ve got to do better with compensating them accordingly.”

The hard-won endorsement of the chamber has also gotten some voters’ attention. Tom Schneider, who works for Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity, did not closely follow the referendums in the early months of the campaign. But as a chamber member, Schneider has learned more about it recently, and he has become an advocate.

“I’m really glad the chamber and the school district got together, they talked about it, and they figured out something that would work,” said Schneider, who rents downtown.

However, after months of political jockeying over the price tag, both behind closed doors and in the media, some voters have concerns over how much the request has changed and whether the district has shown that it needs the money.

Jefferson Shreve, a Republican on the Indianapolis City-County Council, said that even the reduced request is a significant amount of money.

Shreve was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council just last week, and he said he will continue to learn more about the referendums. But Indianapolis Public Schools leaders need to show how they arrived at the final request and how they will use the money.

“If you’re a citizen, and you’re just trying to keep up with this from the sidelines, the number is jumping around by hundreds of millions of bucks,” said Shreve in a phone interview last week. “That just doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence.”

Reaching people who aren’t involved in groups like Rotary, such as low-income voters who work hourly wage jobs or busy parents of young children, takes other campaign tactics, said Downs, the political scientist.

The Indianapolis effort will include radio ads and direct mail, organizers say. The campaign is also relying on door-to-door canvassing, which the group Stand for Children Indiana has already begun. On a Friday afternoon in early September, three canvassers from the group traversed a neighborhood near Crown Hill Cemetery, before their day was cut short by torrential rain.

When a campaign worker knocked on Michael Bateman’s door, his Maltese Shih Tzu burst into high pitched barks. Bateman, for his part, was friendly if skeptical as he stood on the porch in the misty rain.

Lexus Balanzar got straight to the point: Would Bateman be willing to increase his own property taxes to raise money for school security and higher pay for teachers? The tax hike would cost just $3 more per month for homes at the district’s median value, she said.

The taxes on his home were already unaffordable, Bateman, an Indianapolis public school parent and alumnus, said with a dry laugh. “But if it’s for the teachers raises — if we can guarantee that they are for the raises, yeah.”

It’s an argument that could have broad appeal. A recent poll from Ipsos/USA Today found that 59 percent of Americans do not believe teachers are paid fairly, and even more say teachers spend too much of their own money on supplies.

Most of the year, Stand works directly with parents by training them to advocate for their children. But when election season comes around, the group takes on another, controversial role. The local branch of a national organization, Stand has been influential in helping elect school board members who favor partnerships with charter school.

Vote Yes for IPS, a political action committee supporting the referendums, is leaning on Stand for canvassing because the group has roots in the community, said Robert Vane, the lead consultant for the PAC. “Quite frankly, it would be political malpractice not to partner with them when appropriate,” he said.

When it comes to the referendums, Stand’s support could prove pivotal to success. In addition to canvassing, Stand donated $100,000 to Vote Yes for IPS. Stand officials declined to say how much the group is spending on canvassing, but the group said that its spending would be included on the Vote Yes for IPS financial disclosures.

The group has about 20 full-time, paid canvassers across Indianapolis, said Joel Williams, the Stand field director. The canvassers will continue door knocking and performing voter outreach until Election Day.

“We work as much as we humanly can,” Williams added.

state policy

What seven school board members in West Tennessee want in their next governor

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
School boards from across West Tennessee gathered at the new Collierville High School on Monday evening.

Seven weeks before Tennesseans go to the polls to elect the state’s next governor, school board members say funding and getting online testing right are among their top concerns.

School boards across West Tennessee gathered in Collierville on Monday evening with the Tennessee School Boards Association to discuss priorities for the upcoming legislative session. The region, anchored by Memphis, has been a hotbed of state programs in schools to improve test scores at low-performing schools, such as the state-run Achievement School District, in the last two gubernatorial administrations. Online state testing has run into numerous problems since it was introduced in 2016, when a system crash canceled testing for younger students.

Chalkbeat asked some of the school board members in attendance to share what they think the next governor’s education priorities should be. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Mark Hansen, Collierville

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Mark Hansen, a school board member for Collierville Schools.

Obviously we remain concerned about testing and the ability of the infrastructure to not crash when high schools throughout the state log on at the same time. We are very hopeful they’ll get that worked out so that testing is done efficiently. It should be done online because in 2018 and 2019 you shouldn’t have to do things on paper and pencil… You need to test to have a snapshot of where your children are. But there’s a happy medium between not testing enough and testing too much. And I think we need to continue to explore where that happy medium is.

I also hope that they continue to push — and the state legislature — to put more money in the BEP, Basic Education Program, (state funding formula for schools) so that teacher salaries can continue to rise to what they need to be.

I would also emphasize that vocational technical education — that seems to be getting some attention now. Of course we would like every kid to go to college but we think there is a place for those to get a certificate and go out into the workplace and make really good money to start off with. So, I would hope that they would be open to some new programs.

Sally Spencer, Fayette County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sally Spencer, a school board member in Fayette County

I’d like to see continued support for schools that we have had from our current governor. He has been very pro-school, pro-education, for everybody. The Drive to 55 (for 55 percent of Tennesseans to complete college or a job certificate by 2025) is aimed at parents of children who are now realizing how deficient they are in education. They need to go to school. We have the Tennessee Promise program so they can go out and feel out a college before they commit to a college. Kids are not all the same so we have a lot of children who are really into vocational education who don’t want that liberal arts education.

This governor has done a great deal to work with teachers to strive for excellence. We used to have a program where you got tenure if you taught three years. Period. And you didn’t have a lot of complaints; it was almost considered to be automatic. Now you earn that tenure. I would want to keep that.


READ: Here’s how Lee, Dean compare on education in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor


Michelle Robinson McKissack, Shelby County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michelle Robinson McKissack, a school board member for Shelby County Schools.

There’s always all this talk about we need to have students coming out who are ready for the workforce. We need to make sure at the state level they’re providing the funding and that they’re working with businesses to put their money behind their mouth. Instead of just complaining about what’s lacking as students come out of school, being proactive and making things happen.

The need is so dire in Shelby County that the state needs to do adopt a student-based funding model as opposed to being per pupil just like we at Shelby County. We see there’s a greater need perhaps in one area at one school that maybe another school may not have. There’s such a great poverty level here, you have to do more. You can’t just expect for these students who are struggling with so many other challenges, and districts who don’t have the same challenges, give them the same kind of money and then expect that they’re going to get ahead. It’s never going to happen. You have to invest more where the need is greater.

Shirley Jackson, Bartlett

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shirley Jackson, a school board member for Bartlett City Schools

I would like the state to fulfill the funding needs we have. I’m sure everybody is big on that. We need more money for teacher salaries because we want to keep them and retain them in the field.

Testing is an issue. We need better modes of testing, more accurate representation of what the students actually know and do. Not just one day’s worth, but an overall score for that child. I think mainly the fiasco we’ve had with testing has been my [constituent’s] main concern at this point.

Richard Joyner, Tipton County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Richard Joyner, school board member in Tipton County

I hope the new governor follows in line with the one going out. Pushing more for our schools, I’d like to see more funding to do more things. Nicer schools; we need a lot of renovations on our schools in Tipton County. It’s just hard to get a hold of the funding. We have to go into our reserve money to do all the things we want to do.

I’d also like to see the testing system change. With the last administration, the testing didn’t work. I would like to see them do something to make testing work a whole lot easier. Some of the teachers are complaining about it’s hard to do.


READ: Haslam worries TNReady testing troubles could unravel Tennessee education policy


Wendell Wainwright, Fayette County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Wendell Wainwright, a school board member in Fayette County

I would like to see the state bring library resources into the school system. I’m on the library board in my county and the school board. I can see a need how those two can come together because everyone thinks that libraries are not needed anymore. But there’s a lot more going on in a library than just borrowing books.

We have a problem with broadband. Kids cannot use computers in a lot of areas because there’s no internet connection. It can enhance learning bringing the library and the school setting together since we don’t have broadband like we need or want it to be. I’d like to see state funding to help that.

Belinda Rozell, Tipton County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Belinda Rozell, center, a school board member in Tipton County

One thing I hope the next governor will do is be mindful that all children are different; they learn different. And that all the learning should be appropriate for each child. I’m very much for that. I don’t like that everybody has to teach this at the same time, same words used, because every child is different. So, I think learning should be centered around the child, not around the books, not around the curriculum, and not to just improve test scores. I think if you do well-rounded instruction and make a child focus, all the rest will fall into place.

Now, I think everything has been focused on test scores. So, I think everything would be different because they have better mindset for the children and they’ll be more relaxed. If we’re taking care of all the mental health issues, physical, educational, even help with the home issues, I think we’ll have a well-rounded school, a well-rounded community, and then a well-rounded society.