Future of Schools

Schools with highly-paid teachers could benefit from Indianapolis Public Schools proposal

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The average teacher salary at School 15 is significantly lower than the district average.

As Indianapolis Public Schools tries to decide how to divvy up limited resources, it is leaning toward a model that would benefit schools with experienced, highly-paid teachers at the expense of schools with more junior staff.

The district is moving toward a “weighted” budgeting system that will use a formula to set individual school budgets based on enrollment and need — a break from the current system that pays teachers and staff from a central budget without considering whether one school gets more than money another.

But which schools will come out ahead under the new structure — and which ones will lose out — will be determined over the next several months as IPS leaders decide what to factor into their formula.

For now at least, it appears the district plans to protect schools with highly paid staff.

In a draft framework presented to the IPS board last week the administration recommended a formula that would use the district’s average teacher salary to calculate schools expenses.

This means that even if a school has a high number of teachers making the top IPS salary of around $71,000 the district will only count roughly $52,000 of each teacher’s salary — the district’s average teacher pay — when it calculates how much that school is spending compared to other schools.

The framework is designed to prevent principals from hiring junior teachers in hopes of stretching their budgets.

“This focuses on quality rather than cost,” said Weston Young, the chief financial officer for IPS. “It incentivizes school leaders to hire the best talent and not worry about the cost.”

But if the district goes forward with this method, it would come at the expense of schools that are largely staffed with inexperienced, lower-paid teachers like School 15, which is among the poorest schools in the district. Last year, 97 percent of its students received subsidized meals. Teachers at the school were paid an average salary of $43,713, substantially less than the district average.

A formula that uses actual teacher salaries instead of average salaries would allow principals at places like School 15 to use the money they’re not spending on salaries to pay for other priorities like extra teachers, school counselors or art programming.

The way IPS currently funds schools, the district assigns a certain number of staff positions to each school. Principals then hire the teachers, counselors and other staff to fill those spaces but their salaries are paid centrally. Because the district pays salaries and provides resources like training and supplies, schools don’t have to budget for how much those things cost.

A new IPS analysis of funding disparities found that other factors, such as school enrollment, play a greater role in which schools across the district receive the most money per student. But many educators and school advocates remain wary of the new budgeting system for fear that it could force some schools to replace beloved educators with junior teachers who are less expensive.

(Read: Which schools get the most money? IPS analysis reveals how schools compare.)

Weighted budgeting, which is being piloted next year in six IPS schools, aims to give building leaders more control over how they use money in their schools. For example, a principal might choose to have fewer teachers — and slightly larger classes — and use the savings to hire extra teaching assistants. In the long-term, the school board is considering shifting to weighted budgeting districtwide.

The board has not made a decision on whether to use average salary, but it is a policy that some board members have hinted they favor.

At an April meeting, board member Kelly Bentley raised concerns that charging schools for the actual cost of paying their teachers would create a “perverse incentive” for principals to let go of their most experienced educators. It could be particularly problematic at magnet schools where teachers must undergo specialized training, she said.

“We don’t want people to not want to hire teachers because they are going to cost them more money,” Bentley said.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, however, said that she would like to see the district move to actual teacher salaries eventually because salaries are one of the most important factors in school budgeting.

“There has to be a way where you are able to free up the principals to have total control of those decisions — or add that burden to them,” she said.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.