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DPS board questions 2012-13 budget plan

Denver school board members had their first opportunity Thursday to grill district staff on preliminary plans for the district budget in 2012-13, when schools will again be facing cuts in state funding.

In outlining highlights and challenges for the coming year’s roughly $750 million operating budget, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that the district will not be seeing teacher layoffs, furlough days or increased class sizes.

And he underscored that the district’s economic balancing act, particularly with cuts at the state level, is not an easy one.

“Over the last four years, we have lost $1,000 per kid” in state funding, Boasberg told board members. “It’s an extraordinary challenge that districts are facing.”

Board member Nate Easley said he appreciated Boasberg’s use of the word “investment” in presenting his overview of where district dollars should go in the coming year.

“We’ve really got to start using in the state of Colorado the word ‘investment,’ which implies that there’s going to be a payout,” said Easley.

District staff is forecasting state K-12 funding cuts of about $48 million will reduce the district’s per-pupil funding by 2 percent, or $140 per pupil, to $6,733.

The expected drop in state per-pupil funding will be offset for DPS by the fact enrollment is expected to jump by 2.1 percent, or by 1,500 students, in the coming school year.

However, still to be factored into the budget mix is the March state revenue forecast, as well as legislative debate over retaining or eliminating the senior homestead exemption, a $100 million property tax break for senior citizens.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal calls for the continued suspension of that exemption while House Republican leaders have said they want to restore it. Restoring it could force K-12 cuts in exchange.

The budget that was outlined for board members Thursday night highlighted these major operating budget changes on the horizon in the next fiscal year, totaling about $25.6 million.

  • $10 million – Backfill the loss of state per-pupil funding
  • $9.9 million – Pay for $400-per-pupil funding for beginning and intermediate English language learners, plus $3.2 million for increases in ELL support
  • $2.5 million – To “provide extended learning opportunities,” primarily through adding an hour to the school day on a pilot basis at up to 15 elementary, middle, innovation and 6-12 schools
  • $1.7 million – Instructional support service priorities
  • $1.5 million – Increased pension costs

The bulk of the money to pay for this new spending, about $20 million, is proposed to be drawn from district reserves. Another $4 million will come in a decrease to student-based budgeting (from $3,931 to $3,872 per student), with another $1.5 million paid for by a reduction in operating costs.

Boasberg has said that drawing $20 million from DPS reserves for 2012-13 will leave $52 million in unallocated reserves heading into 2013-14.

‘Cuts are disproportionately hurting our higher poverty kids’

The district is contending with a decrease in both federal and state contributions to the DPS budget. Federal Title I funds, which are directed toward low-income students, are decreasing by $2.7 million.

Accordingly, schools with poverty rates of 66 to 89 percent will see the Title I contribution drop from $433 per pupil to $400 per student. Schools with poverty rates of 90 percent or more will see the contribution drop from $525 to $450.

The budget preview also highlighted that DPS faces a $7.2 million annual funding shortfall to maintain early childhood education and full-day kindergarten programs at their current levels.

“Cuts are hurting everyone badly,” said Boasberg. “But the cuts are disproportionately hurting our higher poverty kids.”

Board members responded favorably to the proposal that nearly $10 million is proposed to be devoted to students who are not native English speakers – $6.7 million would fund the extra $400-per-pupil “weighted” funding for English language learners, with another $3.2 million in increased support for English language acquisition programs.

“You’re doing a lot of good work around both sides,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, speaking to DPS chief academic officer Susana Cordova. “This really does make sense, and this is a weight that we’ve been needing … I’m very happy and glad to hear that kids are going to get these services, which will bring up expectations and achievements for all of these kids.”

Board member Jeannie Kaplan said, “I just want to make sure that we’re going in the right direction in teaching these kids. They deserve better. I hope that it’s not just about the money, but about running a good program.”

Some board members unhappy with extended day plan for some schools

The potential extended school year for roughly a dozen more schools next year carries not only a $2.5 million price tag, a figure Boasberg conceded is not etched in stone. It has also stirred controversy, on the part of some parents who feel their opinions on the proposal have not been adequately heeded.

Also, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has filed a class-action grievance, claiming a “mishandling of a process.” DCTA president Henry Roman contends the extra time is being considered without properly applying the “due process of collective bargaining” called for under the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the district.

Kaplan was critical of the proposal in its current form.

“This to me is not such a pleasant conversation,” said Kaplan, who said she’d heard nothing of the plan until two days ago. “It seems very top-down, not collaborative and an issue that really should be a negotiated issue.”

As for the schools that may be included in the extended-day program, Kaplan added, “I’ve heard that ‘invited’ is a very nice way of saying, they were told to do this … I have a whole list of parents I need to call, who have contacted me about, why weren’t they involved?”

Jimenez, although terming the extended school day as “good-intentioned,” was troubled at the prospect of committing to a possible $2.5 million expenditure when it isn’t known yet how many schools will be adopting the longer school day. Boasberg is expecting proposals from 12 to 15 schools; the DCTA, in filing its grievance on the issue, cited 14.

“You’re asking us to allocate a significant amount of money for proposals we haven’t seen yet, and maybe just a handful of those schools will come forward with appropriate proposals,” said Jimenez.

“I’ll let you deal with the DCTA over whether this is a contract issue or not,” he added. “The real issue is about the budget, and details like transportation and the parents, in this process. For me, it’s kind of a blank check to do our own little Race to the Top and I can’t support that allocation.”

Others call the longer day a “win” for families and schools

Easley was one of several board members who were more supportive, calling it a “win” for parents, students, teachers and principals.

“It’s saying to students, at a time when a lot of the country is cutting back, and districts are going to four-day school weeks, this district is saying we’ve got bad times but you know what, we don’t want to cut our commitment to students,” Easley said.

The discussion about an extended day on a pilot basis overlapped with the district’s announcement that all DPS offices and schools will be closed today due to predictions of heavy snow. Boasberg said many questions raised by board members will be answered by the schools’ proposals, which are due today.

“We’ll be getting those by snowshoe and sled dog tomorrow,” Boasberg said Thursday night. “This is a learning experience, much as we have seen with innovation schools and other innovations. It’s a learning curve.

“I’m extremely excited about where we are, and as those proposals get mushed in, we will get them sent out, by electronic sled dog, to you.”

Board member Andrea Merida was absent from the session. According to board president Mary Seawell, Merida was attending a meeting at a school in her southwest Denver district.

The finalized budget is due to be presented to the board on April 19, and to be formally adopted at its meeting the following month.

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