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.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.