Trying again

Brighton district crosses its fingers and hopes a few voters change their minds

PHOTO: Tonja Castaneda
Sophomores Jocelyn Estrada and Stephanie Diaz eat lunch in front of Prairie View High School.

The rapidly growing Brighton schools hope voters are more receptive this year to a $248 million bond issue than they were in 2014, when a $148 million plan failed by 90 votes.

“I feel really good about it – until I wake up at 3 in the morning,” said Chris Fiedler, superintendent of the Adams County School District 27J.

None of the state’s other 20 largest school districts are seeking tax increases this year, but 27J leaders felt they couldn’t wait.

The reason is simple – mushrooming enrollment growth.

The district grew from 9,256 students in 2004 to 17,103 in the 2014-15 school year. That 84 percent increase far exceeds the 18.3 percent growth for all metro-area districts over the decade. The district now is the state’s 16th largest, and Fiedler says 2030 enrollment is projected at 32,000.

The fields east of Brighton and north of Denver International Airport have filled with subdivisions in recent years, and growth continues.

“Houses here are more affordable,” Fiedler explains. He also said growth in Thornton in the western part of the district has exploded.

Growth has consequences

Without new schools, growth requires uncomfortable adjustments, including modified split schedules at the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Brighton and Prairie View. Freshmen and sophomores start school at 7 a.m., with older students coming in at about 9:30 a.m.

Asked about the current split schedule, Brighton High senior Lauren Rocha simply said, “It’s the worst.”

27J’s bond plan
  • High school in Thornton – $89.5M
  • Middle school, location to be determined – $55M
  • Elementary school in Commerce City – $22M
  • Elementary school in Brighton area – $25M
  • Expansions at renovations at five schools – $31.2M

Full details

She has classes from 8:45 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. but no lunch hour.

“It makes you not want to go to class because you want to eat so bad,” she said. “… It’s definitely harder to focus.”

Sympathetic teachers often let students grab food to bring to class.

Some seniors don’t finish the day until 5 p.m., Rocha said, making it tough to juggle after-school activities and jobs. She works evenings at a Brighton pizza restaurant. Asked about homework, Rocha said, “If I’m lucky enough” she gets some done in class, but added, “Sometimes I’m up until 2 in the morning writing a paper.”

Fiedler said the high school schedules also put a strain on staff. “There’s a challenge with scheduling. It stretches our administrators.”

Brighton, then the district’s only high school, went on a split schedule in 2003. A 2004 bond issue allowed construction of Prairie View, easing schedule problems at Brighton. But Prairie View opened with modular classrooms, and most of the district’s other schools also have modulars.

Without a new high school, the district may have to face the possibility of full split schedules at the two high schools, with half the students attending from 6 a.m. to noon and the others in school from noon to 6:30 p.m., Fielder said.

The district also has contingency plans for year-round schedules at its elementary schools.

“That’s one of the possible options in the absence of new space,” he said.

Persuading the voters

Despite the wafer-thin margin of loss last year, bond-issue supporters are determined to succeed this time around.

“We immediately turned that loss into fuel. The disappointment immediately drove the determination,” said Chris Wahrle, a Brighton parent who is a co-founder of IAM27J, a community organization that is campaigning for passage of the bond.

“There is a lot more familiarity with the issues the district is facing” this year, Wahrle said. He added that supporters had to do a lot more explaining about the bond last year.

27Jat a glance
  • 17,103 students
  • 24 schools (five charter)
  • State rating – Accredited
  • 38.6 percent at-risk
  • 52 percent minority
  • District includes Brighton and parts of Broomfield, Commerce City, Thornton and unincorporated Adams and Weld counties

The IAM27J group so far has raised about $73,000 and spent more than $25,000, according to a recent campaign filing. Wahrle said campaign efforts include 10,000 hand-written postcards sent to voters, 3,000 yard signs, large banners at major intersections, phone banks and lots of neighborhood canvassing.

“We knew we had to more this year,” he said.

There are no organized opposition groups.

Fiedler notes there a lot of “noise” in 2014 – bond and tax override elections in neighboring districts plus legislative and other elections.

Among other things, elections last year brought out more Republican voters, who often are more averse to tax increases. Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Adams County, 63 percent of Republican turned out last year compared to 53 percent of Democrats. None of the nine tax increases proposed in five Adams districts passed last year.

Fiedler hopes district voters will be able to focus this year.

“We know that the campaign this year is about participation, not persuasion,” he said.

If passed, the bond issue would increase property taxes on the average home about $33 a year, Fielder said.

What happens next

“If we win there’s hope. If we lose we’re going to lose good staff, good administrators, good families. They’ll go other places,” Fiedler said.

But if the bond is passed, voters will face the issue again. The superintendent said that if current rates of enrollment growth continue the district should start thinking about a new bond issue in six years.

See the document below for a full list of district bond issues and tax overrides on the ballot this election.

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janise Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”