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Jeffco Public Schools’ budget crunch — explained

The Jeffco Public Schools board room is packed on Thursday for a discussion on school closures.
The Jeffco Public Schools board room is packed on Thursday for a discussion on school closures.
Yesenia Robles

On Thursday night, the Jeffco school board is set to dive into the painful process of deciding whether to close five elementary schools in an effort to save money and pay teachers more.

How did the district get to this point, and what kind of calculations are in play? We have answers.

Why is Jeffco proposing to close schools?
The district’s proposal to close five schools would save the district an estimated $3.5 million per year. The district is trying to free up between $20 million to $25 million to offer a more competitive salary to employees.

The district also has pointed to the failure of its bond and mill levy tax requests in November. Those measures would have helped pay for repairs at various schools. Bond proposal details showed Stober Elementary in Lakewood — one of the schools facing closure — was set to receive about $7 million to pay for a renovation and four new classrooms. The other four schools recommended for closure were not mentioned in the detailed bond summary released to the public.

Why is the district building new classrooms at the same time it’s closing schools?
Jeffco Public Schools has more than 13,000 unused seats because of declining enrollment across the district. But the empty seats aren’t evenly spread out and space needs aren’t the same in every neighborhood.

The new classrooms would be additions to middle schools as part of another piece of the plan that would move sixth graders into middle schools. (Right now, most Jeffco middle schools are just seventh and eighth grade). It would relieve some overcrowding at elementary schools and make use of some space in middle school buildings.

The classroom additions were among the projects that would have been paid for by the district’s bond request. Now they will instead be paid for with reserves allocated for capital construction. The district is also estimating some of the classroom additions at higher costs than was budgeted in bond details presented before November’s election.

Couldn’t the money for teacher’s pay also come from somewhere else?
The district does have some savings. Jeffco’s unassigned reserves — the district’s required savings that aren’t tied to any need — were at $76 million at the end of the last school year. That’s 13 percent of the district’s expenditures. According to the district, the Government Finance Officer’s Association recommends school districts save between 8 percent and 16 percent of their expenditures. The school board built up the reserves in 2015-16 with an additional $12.6 million.

Jeffco is using about $16 million from their reserves in the current school year to pay for “one-time compensation” and “student and staff supports.”

In short Diana Wilson, spokeswoman for the Jeffco district, said the cuts are meant to help position the district for more than one year so that cuts like this don’t have to be made again soon.

Do teachers in Jeffco really make that much less than teachers in other districts?
When the last school board approved a new compensation model for teachers, it also raised base pay. Jeffco staff has explained to the school board that new teachers aren’t necessarily getting paid less than a competitive salary. But some teachers with a middle-range of experience, such as more than five years of experience, can make more money elsewhere when they are allowed to transfer their years of service. But when teachers from other districts want to join Jeffco, the district restricts the years of service that can be credited, meaning that some have to take a pay cut. The goal of the compensation changes would be to even out the salaries in cases in which they are far below other districts’ pay. The details still would need to be worked out in negotiations with unions.

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee has said that because other neighboring districts were able to pass tax requests, they may use that money to increase their teachers’ salaries, increasing the gap in pay with Jeffco.

McMinimee also said he believes salary improvements are necessary for other employee groups, including bus drivers, and other lower paid positions that are hard to staff.

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