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.

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: