Beep Beep

Five ideas to help Denver students get to the schools they choose

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Denver gets national kudos for its robust school choice system, but the district has also been criticized for not doing enough to help some students get to their chosen schools.

Now, as families begin submitting their school choices for next year, one of the most persistent local critics has offered a set of recommendations to improve what it calls the district’s “antiquated transportation policies.” Among them: Make more high school students eligible for transportation by shortening the distance they must live from school to qualify.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg had not yet seen the recommendations on Friday. But he noted that expanding bus service presents financial challenges. Colorado has among the lowest per-pupil funding of any state, he said, which “creates significant pressure on everything from class sizes to professional compensation for teachers … to transportation.”

The district already spends $26 million of its $1 billion budget on transportation, and Boasberg has said spending more on buses would mean spending less on something else. Plus, the district reports having a hard time filling bus driver positions in the thriving economy.

Some of the recommendations released this week by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation would cost the district money, while others would save money or even generate it.

The recommendations include:

  • Decrease the “walk zone” distance for high school students.

High school students now must live more than three and a half miles from school to qualify for transportation. Unlike for elementary and middle school students, they are not transported in  yellow buses. Instead, the district buys students Regional Transportation District passes.

But three and a half miles is too far to expect students to walk, said Donnell-Kay special projects director Matt Samelson, who wrote the recommendations. He’d like the district to change its policy to shorten that distance to two or two and a half miles. The recommendations do not include cost estimates, but this one would likely be expensive.

  • Remove a requirement that to be eligible for an RTD pass, high school students must attend the boundary schools that serve the neighborhoods where they live.

That policy doesn’t match the district’s position on school choice, Samelson said, adding that “school choice without transportation is not a choice at all.”

It also leaves out many charter schools, since boundary schools tend to be district-run. Denver has 59 charters that serve more than 21,000 of the district’s 92,600 students. Some charters spend their own money on transportation for their students. The result is an “unnecessarily complicated” system of who gets bus service and who doesn’t, Samelson said.

  • Take a hard look at whether ongoing attempts to expand transportation are working.

Since 2011, the district has run shuttle buses that make stops at several schools in certain areas of the city. The original goal of the Success Express shuttles was to provide more flexible transportation opportunities in neighborhoods where the school options were changing.

But ridership is low. For example, Samelson said, only about 11 percent of eligible students in far northeast Denver ride that region’s Success Express shuttle, which serves 24 campuses.

“The shuttle is certainly innovative, but it’s time to examine how the service can be improved, and that requires asking the community what mobility issues it is facing,” he wrote.

  • Hold a hack-a-thon to solicit ways to make the transportation system more efficient.

Boston Public Schools did this last year. The winning solution was developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggested a computer-based system of establishing bus routes that is predicted to save millions of dollars.

“A DPS-sponsored hack-a-thon has the potential to improve transportation efficiencies and reduce costs, which would allow the district to focus on how to provide transportation services to students currently ineligible for, but in need of, transportation,” Samelson wrote.

  • Ask voters to approve a tax increase to fund transportation.

The district has heard this one before. A committee of community leaders tasked with suggesting ways to increase school integration recently made the same recommendation.

The tax increase could be small, Samelson said. Raising taxes by $28 per year for the typical homeowner would have netted $14.7 million in 2016, he figured.

The district has already put some tax revenue into transportation: $400,000 of a $56.6 million tax increase voters passed in 2016 was earmarked for that purpose. But $400,000 is not nearly enough money to fund the more costly recommendations Samelson is making.

The money was supposed to be spent on high school students. When the district allocated $127,000 of it for special education transportation instead, parents pushed back and the district changed course, promising to spend the full amount on RTD passes.

Boasberg has repeatedly emphasized that Denver Public Schools can’t solve its transportation issues alone. The district must work with the city and RTD on a solution, he said.

Discussions are underway. An RTD working group is exploring the creation of a youth pass that would be offered to teenagers at a deep discount. City officials have also expressed interest in a youth pass, and last summer ran a pilot program that provided 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver teens to gather data on how students might use public transit.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.