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Jeffco School Board adds $1.85M to budget for charters, $4.8M for teacher comp

Participants at a packed Jeffco School Board meeting show "spirit hands" in support of a public speaker.  Most speakers were parents or community members unhappy with the board.
Participants at a packed Jeffco School Board meeting show "spirit hands" in support of a public speaker. Most speakers were parents or community members unhappy with the board.
Lisa Cook

The Jeffco School Board approved the addition of another $1.85 million toward charter school equalization and an additional $4.8 million for teacher compensation during the second hearing on the 2014-15 Jeffco Schools budget on June 19. The addition to teacher compensation remains a placeholder while the district and Jefferson County Education Association work their way through fact finding.

The $1.85 million is in addition to $3.7 million that the board majority approved by a 3-2 vote in early April. It brings the total amount of charter equalization to $5.55 million, adding approximately $874 per pupil for charter school students. Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt said brought the district three-quarters of the way to full equalization. Historically, charter schools have negotiated and received only a portion of mill levy override funds approved since 1999.

When the additional state per-pupil increase of $360 per pupil is added in, charter schools will see a total increase of approximately $1,234 per pupil for the 2014-15 year. Board member Julie Williams originally made a motion to increase funding to $6.4 million, but later revised that amount to $5.55 million.

The funding increase was contested by board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, who said they supported the $3.7 million increase but wanted to also form an ad-hoc committee to study the issue and recommend a process for moving toward full equalization. Dahlkemper and Fellman also pointed to several other financial needs, including capital needs, budget cuts to programs whose funding had not been restored as the economy improved, and the importance of rebuilding the reserve funds.

Their comments echoed recommendations from the district’s Financial Oversight Committee, who urged the board to “be cautious of the long term financial impact of budgetary decisions.” Chief Financial Officer Lorie Gillis said the FOC also asked the board to “recognize that it may be a better financial planning strategy to not attempt to implement all desired changes immediately, but rather by taking multi-year steps.”

The FOC also asked the board to target rebuilding the district’s reserves, which the district had used to help keep cuts out of the classroom as state funding dropped. Gillis added that the district’s capital infrastructure was severely underfunded. The industry standard would be to fund capital needs at $55 to $60 million per year, but Jeffco is currently funding it at $18 million.

“You will be carrying the impacts of the decisions into the out years,” Gillis told the board. She explained that the district budgets not only for the current year but also multiple years into the future, and that this decision could deplete the reserves in a few years. The charter school increase was approved by a 3-2 vote.

Dahlkemper asked the board to add $600,000 to fund free full-day kindergarten in schools with a free and reduced lunch rate of 35 percent or higher. That line item had been cut from the budget earlier in the spring, but had been the subject of considerable debate at subsequent meetings.

Board member John Newkirk said he would not oppose the current programs, but couldn’t expand the free full-day kindergarten program, calling it “neither equitable or effective.” He cited a recent report from the district that compared third-grade TCAP scores of students who had attended half- or full-day kindergarten. Newkirk said the report showed better scores among those who had attended half-day programs.

Marcia Anker, Chief Schools Effectiveness Officer, explained that it had been difficult to form control groups but that there was a slight improvement among full-day kindergarten students when they controlled for the total number of school days the students had attended. Dahlkemper added that new Superintendent Daniel McMinimee had asked the board to fund full-day kindergarten next year and asked her fellow members to take his request seriously.

Newkirk instead proposed using $717,000 to reduce kindergarten class sizes across the district in 2014-15 because, he said, that was an effective way to improve student achievement. Witt agreed, calling it a reasonable compromise to make education more effective for kindergarten students.

The proposal, however, met several obstacles, including the logistics of shrinking class sizes this late (kindergarten registration began in January), and in terms of having adequate facilities. Chief Operations Officer Steve Bell pointed out that both staffing and space are impacted by class size reductions. If kindergarten classes are reduced by two students, what happens to those two students? Bell asked. Will they be kicked out and sent to another school, or will the school split the class into two classes, which makes the effective reduction much higher?

Gillis told the board that although reworking the kindergarten class sizes would be impossible before August, it would be possible to provide extra teachers for kindergarten classrooms. Dahlkemper and Fellman both said they would like to study the issue next year.

“We don’t really know what the dollar amount will be,” Dahlkemper said. She added that the board would need to consider how the reduction would impact their current facilities. Board member Julie Williams also suggested allocating money to each school so that principals could use it for extra paraprofessionals, full-time teacher-librarians or other resources that would best benefit their kindergarten student. The motion to reduce kindergarten class sizes failed 3 to 2, with Williams joining Dahlkemper and Fellman in voting against it.

The $4.8 million addition to compensation affects Jeffco School employees at all levels and will allow for an average 2.5 percent pay raise. The Jeffco School Board approved a contract with the Jeffco Classified School Employees at their June meeting, but voted down a signed tentative agreement with the teachers’ union. The amount is slightly more than the $4.2 million the board majority cut from the compensation placeholder during budget discussions in early April.

The board also voted to approve a compensation resolution because fact finding with JCEA will not be completed by June 30. The board is required to approve the budget by June 30. According to the resolution, the board will determine the form of the increase after fact finding. It could “include movement on the salary schedule or a cost of living increase in an amount equal to movement on the salary schedule.” The resolution also states the board may “revise the salary schedule in a manner that results increased starting salaries for new teachers.”

Earlier in the meeting, a number of parents, teachers and community members addressed the board about the budget decisions. All but four expressed some degree of dissatisfaction with recent decisions.

Jayne Bognar told the board she saw a lack of respect and lack of fiscal responsibility by the three new members. “There is no room in our classrooms for political and corporate agendas,” she said.

Jeffco parent Amanda Stevens asked the board to increase teacher compensation and also responded to recent remarks that Williams made about Jeffco’s student achievement on a conservative talk radio show. “Jeffco is better than DougCo. How do I know? Data,” Stevens said, citing several instances in which student achievement scores in Jeffco rival those in Douglas County, despite Jeffco’s much higher poverty rate. “Partisan politics is poison,” she said. “Get it out of our schools.”

Jeffco parent Tina Gurdikian addressed the unwillingness of the board to fund free full-day kindergarten for the district’s low-income students. “I believe you are relying on a false assumption that if you don’t see a direct correlation between improved third grade TCAP scores for full-day kindergarten students over half-day kindergarten students, that full-day kindergarten doesn’t help students achieve. If this is the case, should we expect music, art, PE, history, foreign language to fall under attack as well? After all, if data doesn’t show that these classes improve TCAP scores – by your logic – then why invest in them at all?”

Several specifically addressed concerns over the board’s failure to approve the signed tentative agreement with JCEA. Jeffco parent, Jim Early,” asked them to value and respect the district’s educators. “My children’s education and my home are my most important assets,” he said.

Lakewood High School teacher Don Cameron also expressed his dissatisfaction with how contract negotiations had been handled. "They have destroyed a successful relationship with the teachers and the Board of Education, and have lost our trust,” Cameron said. "Failure to negotiate in good faith has destroyed morale of the teachers, the same teachers whom you expect to work hard to educate the children of Jeffco."

Jeffco parent Anne Bitsie told the board, “Let me assure you, the best and brightest will not apply to a school district in turmoil.” Another community member, Todd Friesen, asked the new board members for a bit of compromise. “It wouldn’t take much to start redeeming yourself,” he said. “How about tonight?”

Two others spoke in favor of charter school equalization, asking the board to fully fund the $7.4 million identified earlier by the board majority. Parent Nathan Drake said he wanted the gap closed now. He told board members that if they declined to do that tonight, he wanted to know if they didn’t close it now, then when, and how they would education the community about the funding issue in the meantime.

In other board news, the board heard the final recommendations from the Choice Enrollment Committee. The committee recommended that Jeffco Schools establish an online system to simplify the choice enrollment process.

Shannon Fitzgerald, Enrollment Planning and Services Consultant, explained that the recommendation was only for an online enrollment system and not for a centralized lottery system like the one used by Denver Public Schools. Under the committee’s recommendation, individual schools would run their own lottery, and families could receive offers from more than one school. The only change would be that the form could be completed online, as opposed to the current system in which parents fill out a paper application and turn it in to the schools in which they hope to choice enroll their students.

The committee also made recommendations about supporting innovative practices and sharing them between schools and finding ways to better communicate transportation options to choice schools. The budget approved during the meeting, however, does not include funding for an online system or the committee’s other recommendations.

Witt also confirmed that McMinimee signed the contract and will officially step in as Jeffco's superintendent on July 1. His compensation package totals $280,000, including $220,000 base salary, $40,000 in possible performance pay and Jeffco Schools will reimburse his personal PERA contributions up to $20,000.