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Question of Jeffco charter school equalization draws overflow crowd at meeting

Parents of students at Jeffco neighborhood and charter schools turned out in huge numbers to show support or voice disapproval for a proposal to increase charter school funding by $7 million.
Parents of students at Jeffco neighborhood and charter schools turned out in huge numbers to show support or voice disapproval for a proposal to increase charter school funding by $7 million.
Lisa Cook

A proposal to increase funding to 13 Jeffco charter schools by up to $7.5 million drew considerable attention Thursday night as some cheered the idea while others questioned whether the decision would require cuts to the district’s neighborhood and option schools.

Both the fifth-floor boardroom and the fourth-floor overflow room were standing room only, when the regular 6:30 meeting started. Other waited in the lobby outside the boardroom. So many people attended that the fire marshal closed the building shortly after the meeting began.

Parents and teachers from five of Jeffco’s thirteen charter schools spoke passionately about the Jeffco School Board’s proposal to equalize charter school funding. Approximately 8 percent of Jeffco's 85,000 students attend charter schools.

The largest charter school representation came from parents and teachers at Compass Montessori. Parents with students at Mountain Phoenix, Two Roads, Excel Academy and Woodrow Wilson charter schools also spoke in favor of equalization, while parents at Jeffco neighborhood schools largely urged the board to honor its 3A promises.

The controversy stemmed largely from two issues: (1) the three new Jeffco School Board members had suggested they would renegotiate the amount of funding charter schools receive from the 2012 mill levy override, 3A, to give the charter schools a larger share, and (2) concerns that giving $7 million to charter schools would result in an equal amount of cuts to neighborhood and option schools.

“Please be prepared to explain the impacts on neighborhood schools,” neighborhood school parent Tina Gurdikian told the school board.

Charter school parent Rich Peters countered, “I believe in equal funding.”

Neighborhood school parent Amanda Stevens also asked about the impact on Jeffco’s other schools, saying, “It’s not an ‘if’ question: what will we cut?”

Charter school parent Vicki Milton, told the Jeffco School Board that she doesn’t want charter school equalization to be an us vs. them issue, but that she would like to see all students funded equally regardless of where they attend school in the district.

What quickly became clear during the two-hour long public comment session was how bleak school funding is for both neighborhood and charter schools in Jeffco. Stories of teachers buying supplies for the classroom out of their own money and parents fundraising thousands of dollars each year to fill budget gaps were heard repeatedly in public comments and via social media outlets during Thursday's meeting.

Parents and teachers at neighborhood and charter schools in Jeffco told about using their own dollars to purchase curriculum materials and funding to pay for necessary technology upgrades, along with donating time to fill staffing shortages in libraries and playgrounds that had been caused by those same budget cuts.

The former head of Compass Montessori charter school talked about parents who constructed the playground at the school because they did not have district funding for one.

An Arvada neighborhood school, Little Elementary, did the same thing this fall. Lacking district funding to replace 30-year-old playground equipment, parents fundraised thousands of dollars and also won a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado and the City of Arvada to purchase new playground equipment.

Litte Elementary parents spent a weekend constructing a playground more suitable for the school's kindergarten and first grade students, and now are engaged in a second round of fundraising to replace the equipment used by the older elementary students.

School board member Lesley Dahlkemper pointed out that huge funding cuts, not the mill levy, were at the heart of these ongoing funding problems during the board’s discussion later in the meeting.

“We cut $78 million dollars,” she said, adding that 3A only maintained educational options in Jeffco.

Board member Jill Fellman said she would be happy to consider additional charter school funding going forward, but she was unwilling to go back and reconsider decisions that had already been negotiated with and agreed to by the charter schools two years earlier during the 3A mill and bond campaign.

Speakers had held signs and asked the board to keep their 3A promises in the earlier public comment session.

Jeffco Schools Chief Financial Officer Lorie Gillis told the board there is a lot of misunderstanding in how the funding works at charter schools and neighborhood schools,

“It’s not apples to apples,” Gillis said, and asked the board to consider hearing a presentation that explained how funding worked for both at their next meeting.

Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt said, “no one has discussed cutting anything,” and said he was proposing that the district spend additional dollars on charter school equalization.

Witt proposed adding $3.7 million to the budget for charter schools now, and adding another $3.7 million if more funding became available from the state.

Fellman said she wanted a conversation to better understand charter school funding before she could agree to any dollar amount as a placeholder in the proposed 2014-15 budget.

“This is about looking at the big picture. We’ve got to be thoughtful about it,” Dahlkemper said, noting that the board has also just agreed to cut a line item for $600,000 that would have funded full free-day kindergarten at 13 low-income schools, and had cut another $4.2 million, including a $3.7 million PERA increase, from funds available for employee raises.

The school board agreed to hear a presentation on charter and neighborhood school funding during its April 24 meeting as they continue to work through the 2014-15 budget and negotiate with the employee associations this spring.