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.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.