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Jefferson County residents hung sings along a bridge at Wadsworth Boulevard and Bowles criticizing the Jeffco Public Schools' board majority last month. Some members of the Jeffco community are concerned about how the school board plans to spend the district's budget. The board will hear a presentation from district staff and public comment on the budget tonight.

Jefferson County residents hung sings along a bridge at Wadsworth Boulevard and Bowles criticizing the Jeffco Public Schools’ board majority last month. Some members of the Jeffco community are concerned about how the school board plans to spend the district’s budget. The board will hear a presentation from district staff and public comment on the budget tonight.

Nicholas Garcia

(Nearly) everything you need to know about Jeffco’s 2014 budget — and a little bit more

What’s in and what’s out of the state’s second largest school district’s budget is likely to draw ire tonight when the suburban school board meets.

On the agenda is a presentation from district staff on the draft budget. The public will also have a chance to weigh-in on Jeffco’s coffers.

The bottom line: Due to an improving economy, Jeffco is getting more money from the state — about $29 million, which equates to $360 per student. And if the Board of Education were to approve the spending plan without changes, the district would even have $11 million left over to replenish the savings it depleted during the Great Recession.

And that’s after the district hands out raises to teachers and staff, purchases a new math curriculum, develops a new student-data website, and invests nearly $1 million in gifted and talented programs.

A budget like that, after years of draconian cuts, might be universally welcomed. But nothing in Jefferson County has been that easy since November’s election put a new conservative majority in place. Since the new board members were sworn in, meetings have been rife with tension.

That dynamic is unlikely to change tonight, despite the sunny budget situation. Debate is likely to be especially fierce over the budget proposal’s increased funding for charter schools and lack of new dollars for kindergarten.

Before you head out to the board meeting, Chalkbeat shares what you need to know about the budget below. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. with an executive session to discuss the teachers union collective bargaining agreement.

Impact on classrooms

The largest single increase in the general fund is compensation. The district has earmarked nearly $12 million to pay for raises to teachers and clerical staff, such as secretaries and janitors. Still, the budget proposes new spending on several projects and programs, including

  • $1.8 million for a new math curriculum;
  • $600,000 for a new student-data hub to be developed and run by the school district;
  • $900,000 to expand the district’s gifted and talented program;
  • $2 million for a new literacy program;
  • $700,000 to the district’s online education program; and
  • $4.5 million for mobile devices and the infrastructure to support them.

Overall, the general fund is expected to see a nearly 2 percent rise in revenue, or $15 million. School construction and repairs would accelerate under the proposed budget, which increases funding for capital projects by 76 percent, or $20 million.

How the budget was made

To prepare the budget, district staff reviewed enrollment projections at both its neighborhood and option schools, as well as charter schools. They worked closely with the state to determine changes in projected revenue. And they looked at inflation to gauge any potential increase in costs to goods and services.

After gauging about how much funding would be available for the next school year, district staff heard from the board of education, which recently updated its achievement goals and priorities. The district’s accountability committee formed a subcommittee to make recommendations. Additionally, more than 13,000 community members participated in an online survey. And individuals were allowed to share feedback at town halls throughout the 773 square miles that make up Jefferson County.

Budget basics

  • The budget, or how the district spends its tax revenues, follows the state’s fiscal year cycle, from July 1 to June 30. That means the board must approve a budget by June 30.
  • This year, the board is expected to sign off on the budget at its June 19 meeting. It is also expected to hear public comment on the budget proposal then.
  • However, because the budget is largely based on tax revenue from the state, which can go up and down throughout the year, the district has until Jan. 31 to update its budget as needed.
  • The budget is broken into seven different pots of revenue and expenses. The largest and most common is known as the “general fund.” The general fund is made up of both local and state tax revenues, including dollars collected from the district’s three successful mill and bond questions. That money pays teachers and funds the central administration building, student services, and security, among other line items.
  • Charter schools have their own fund. That bucket of revenue includes tax revenues divided up by pupil and any grants or donations the schools receive.

Budget battles

So, with an increase in revenue, raises for staff, and funding for new programs, why are so many people likely to be so angry about the budget? In addition to the fact that there is already widespread concern about whether the new board majority represents the will of the county’s majority, the budget also contains two probable sticking points.

The first is funding for charter schools. Earlier this year, the board’s conservative majority said they wanted to equalize local per pupil funding for students who attend the district’s charter schools.

Under state statute, students who attend charter schools must receive their share of per pupil dollars that the district receives from the state. And that’s what happens in Jeffco. But Jeffco charter school operators are not getting an equal share of money from voter-approved tax revenues, known as mill overrides.

If all things were equal, Jeffco’s 15 charter schools would receive about $7 million more each year.

Supporters of the 2012 mill question, which passed, say the board’s majority — which had not yet been elected and had no role in the development of the mill question or campaign — is violating the public’s trust and thwarting the will of the voters by giving $3.7 million from the district’s general fund to the district’s charter schools.

They said they worked diligently to persuade the community to support the tax increase. That included spelling out in great detail how the money would be used — and giving more money to charter schools was not part of the campaign.

District staff, in an interview with Chalkbeat, acknowledged charter schools have historically been underfunded. And a key assumption in the district’s budget is that charter school enrollment is going up, while it’s declining at neighborhood schools. It’s also important to note, they said, that both state and local revenues funnel into the same pot. So, while the math used to determine how much more the district should fund its charter schools is based on mill revenues, its impossible to say mill money is being directed to charter schools.

Because of increased revenues from the state, handing over $3.7 million to the district charter schools is an easy request, district staff said. They added that neighborhood schools would not suffer as a result.

The board’s decision not to expand the district’s free full-day kindergarten program is also likely to draw fire.

Jeffco currently provides free half-day kindergarten to all students. At 40 elementary schools where more than 36.8 percent of students are so poor that they qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, the second half of the day is also free to families. At the district’s other 52 elementary schools, parents who want their kindergartners enrolled all day must pay $300 a month.

Expanding the free program got high marks on the Jeffco community budget survey. And a majority of members on the district’s accountability committee, which also provided guidance on the budget, ranked the expansion as a high priority. (A minority report from the committee disagreed.)

Expanding the program to another 17 schools that have many students living in poverty would cost the district $600,000 — a modest proposal to some. But the board’s majority opposes the expansion, saying that there is no local proof that Jeffco’s kindergarten program works.

District staff said there have been talks about developing an alternative proposal that would provide free-full day kindergarten on an individual basis to Jeffco students living in poverty — regardless of which school they attend, as board majority member John Newkirk suggested last month. But that proposal hasn’t made it to the board or into the budget.

The budget also notes that Jeffco must forfeit an estimated $1.3 million in state early childhood education fund because the board has not put into place a school readiness assessment. If the board were to reverse that decision before June 14, the district could apply for the money and add up to 900 additional kindergarten seats.