Archive for the ‘Colorado Budget Crisis’ Category

Bright days go dark for school finance in Colorado

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Schools open early in Colorado.  In many districts, teachers start back the second week of August and kids arrive the 3rd week.  This year, in many districts, teachers arrived as they usually do to set up their classrooms, but they didn’t get paid.  No money.

This is the irony of working as a teacher in today’s environment in Colorado, where the spending-cuts Tea Party has many forceful adherents.

Fewer days, fewer hours for kids and teachers

Jefferson County (Jeffco) teachers  on the west side of the Denver metro area will take a 3 percent pay cut in 2011-12, based on five furlough days.  Three furlough days will occur out of professional development time, and two will occur around school holidays when students will also get an extra day off.

At a time when many students need to be in school more hours and/or more days, districts across Colorado are cutting both.

State’s largest district sees $100 million cut from budget over 4 years

Jefferson County’s general fund budget has declined by $60 million since its high point in 2009-10, just before revenue for the state budget contracted.  Another $70 million will likely go away through 2013-14.  At this point there’s no telling when the down trend will turn around, and even when it does, it’s likely to take years just to get back to ’09-10 levels.

State continues to throw mandates at districts with no money

Despite the budget cutting at districts, the state continues to mandate work and other requirements.  Senate Bill 10-191 is an example.  This bill states that school districts will provide performance evaluations to all teachers annually, and to new and probationary teachers two to three times a year.

This state mandate is a good idea.  Teachers should be regularly and systematically evaluated.  However, management staffing to do these evaluations is lacking. Most management to staff ratios in business hit around 1 manager for 10 people or fewer.  The district’s staffing ratio is more like 1 principal to 20 or 30 staff at elementary school, and much higher at high schools.

The district has yet to figure out how to conduct on-site teacher observations, interviews, and written appraisals without adding substantially more administrators, at a time when citizens complain about the “excessive” dollars used to pay management staff.

Students’ needs are great as ever

At the same time, student needs haven’t declined.  The district has done some heavy lifting to raise test scores.  It has succeeded.  Compared to state data, the district has improved its test results on students meeting or exceeding proficiency in 17 categories on state exams, as opposed to 12 for the state.  As important, Jeffco continues to compete successfully with other metro area districts, even though it has experienced an increase from 20% to 30% of children considered low income, often with learning difficulties that need attention.

Money questions haunt districts

How much longer can a district with 81,000 students continue to march forward when money and related resources are marching backward?  Will today’s kindergarten class, graduates of 2024, receive the quality education they need and deserve because of declining revenues in 2011-12?

Will Colorado be able to build a strong economic base for today’s and tomorrow’s workers based on a weak public education foundation?  It’s usually a bright time when schools open their doors and windows in Colorado, but now, in 2011, the blinds are down, the hallways are dark, and too many doors for too many children are closing.

Colorado’s Evaluation-Compensation Pilot Proposal

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

The state of Colorado has embarked on an ambitious principal and teacher evaluation program that may change how teachers are compensated, retained, and dismissed.

Based on Colorado’s SB10-191 law, the Colorado Department of Education is creating evaluation criteria for principals and teachers that school districts will use by 2013.

The first pilot of principal evaluation will occur in 2011-12 in selected school districts.  The major evaluation categories include:

I: Principals demonstrate strategic leadership

II: Principals demonstrate instructional leadership

III: Principals demonstrate school culture and equity leadership

IV: Principals demonstrate human resource leadership

V: Principals demonstrate managerial leadership

VI: Principals demonstrate external development leadership

VII: Principals demonstrate leadership around student growth

A pilot of teacher evaluation will begin in 2012-13.  The major evaluation categories include:

I: Teachers demonstrate knowledge of the content they teach

II: Teachers establish a respectful learning environment for a diverse population of students

III: Teachers facilitate learning for their students

IV: Teachers reflect on their practice

V: Teachers demonstrate leadership

VI: Teachers take responsibility for student growth

The complete program, with evaluation revisions, will roll out in 2013-14.

Annual performance evaluation is a feature of employment in the private sector.  In many instances, compensation relates to the assessment.  A number of school districts, including the state’s largest, Jefferson County Schools, will base compensation on annual evaluation.

Jefferson County School District will use its bargaining relationship with its Associations to put together its evaluation-compensation program.  Due to huge budget cuts, the District engaged in a “Summit” in March, 2011, to find $40 million in cuts.  All Associations came together to identify where fees would rise, staffing trims would take place, and programs would end.  The outcome resulted in a 93 percent approval vote by Associations in support of their contracts, despite an across the board 3 percent salary reduction.

A task force from the Summit will recommend a strategic compensation program that may involve two salary platforms: one for current teachers and one for new teachers.

The new teacher program is likely to remove traditional annual step raises and level lifts.  Tuition assistance will replace levels and compensation based on performance will replace steps.

The new compensation system will create a capacity to increase income based on overall performance and incentives based on specific achievement targets or goals.  As an example, steps based on years may be replaced by steps based on “two consecutive years of meeting performance expectations.”  Incentive pay may occur for achieving specific targets, such as “all students score proficient or above on 3rd grade math assessment.”

Much of this work requires refinement and experimentation.  Currently the District is implementing a $37 million Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant to determine whether incentive pay can substantially improve student academic performance in Title 1 schools.  Results of this study will affect the design of the District’s compensation and evaluation program.

Districts are beginning to incorporate some business practices from the private sector.  What’s unknown at this point is whether private sector practices, even well-tested best practices, will transfer to the public education environment.

The Summit: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Public education funding in Colorado will decline $1000/per child per year from its high point in 2008 to its projected low point in 2013-14.  The $5600 per student funding in 2003 will be the state’s starting point in 2013.  It’s unknown when the state will return to its $6600 per student funding high hit in 2008.

School budgets going backward in Colorado

School districts across the state will see many more years of declining revenue because roughly 35 percent of school funding comes from property tax.  Property values have decreased, lowering the contribution from property tax payers to public schools.  These revenues will not return until property values increase, and with property appraisals occurring on a two year cycle, a decade may go by before districts get back to their 2008 level.

The state must backfill lost property tax revenue, but it doesn’t have any money either.  The budget gap for public school funding is still to be decided, but it will be somewhere between $250 million to $330 million in 2011-2012, and not any better in 2012-13.  All of this is depressing news, but sometimes out of darkness comes light.

Jefferson County Schools hit hard by cuts

Jefferson County School District, the largest in the state with 85,000 students and 14,000 employees, will be hard hit by the budget gap – at about $71 million in 2011-2012.  The district has $30 million in reserves, but still needs $40 million in additional cuts.  Jeffco was in the middle of its traditional negotiations when it received word from the state about the $40 million gap.

Necessity is the mother of invention.  The school board president, superintendent, and president of the teachers’ union were at a conference discussing new ways of dealing with school reform.  The three heard a presentation on a new negotiation process.  They decided to try it.

District tries new negotiation strategy; good things happen

Called the Summit, the negotiation brought together two board members, two members of the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA), two members from the Jefferson County Administrators Association (JCAA), two members from the CSEA (Classified Service Employees Association), and the superintendent.  They worked with a federal administrator over three days and seventeen hours to complete an agreement.  The agreement foundation was this: take the whole deal or start over.

With so much at stake, the negotiators hunkered down.  They discussed salaries, work days, class sizes, transportation needs, fees, and programs.  They evaluated school closings.  Collectively, they put together a package to take to association groups and the Board.

Hard choices made together

They recommended closing two elementary schools, shutting down the District’s Outdoor Lab program in the Rockies, reducing salaries by three percent, taking six days out of the school year (four professional development days and two furlough days), charging for bus transportation, and boosting sports fees.

No one is happy, but most realize that it’s the best deal for the times.  One board member disagrees. She wants to take more out of salaries, reduce the district’s contribution to retirement plans, and hold employees to the 2010 work year calendar.  The Board, however, supported the negotiation in a 4-1 vote.

The Jeffco School Board will present the plan to the community in April and will vote on the final budget in May.  So far, the negotiations are well-received.  This successful process will probably form the new template for Jefferson County School District to manage its budget and employee relations.

Cut school funds? Good idea?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) announced his budget Tuesday that includes somewhere around $325 million to $375 million in budget cuts for school districts.  He says that K-12 education is the state’s most important priority, but…

Colorado’s public education budget has gradually become the state’s problem since the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) passed in the early 1990s.   What used to be a 40-60 split between state and districts is now a 65-35 split.

The recession has amplified the problem.  Property tax revenues have dramatically declined and will continue to flatline, as it may take a decade before the foreclosure wrench is over.  Since properties are reassessed only every two years, recovery will not come soon.

The state budget is short $1.2 billion for 2011-12.  With school finance representing about 40% of the state’s General Fund, cuts will hit schools disproportionately to other programs funded outside the General Fund.  Which brings us to the state’s severance tax.

Colorado, like other western states, has lots of minerals, oil, and gas resources, but especially gas.  With the price of oil rising over the last few years, the state’s natural gas has become more valuable and has attracted drillers back to our more rural counties.  Northwestern Colorado, the home of Dinosaur National Monument, is experiencing another boom, as drillers are putting down wells and filling our small rural towns with lots of workers and their needs for good roads, clean water, clean air, and education for their kids.  Ah, the rub.

The state collects two taxes to help with the impact of extraction: the ad valorem property tax and the severance tax.  The property tax is assessed against the value of the gas extraction as property.  The severance tax is assessed to compensate for the lost resources, never to be returned to the earth.  Cities, counties, and school districts use the property tax.  Royalty owners can deduct 87.5% of the property tax off their severance tax.  The state is supposed to keep the remaining 12.5%.

Traditionally, the state has recycled much of the severance tax back to the rural counties for roads, clean water, sewage treatment, and other infrastructure needs.  The cities and counties have counted on this money as their towns boom and bust with the energy industry.

But now the whole state is bust, and the legislature wants to retain severance tax money to bridge the state’s budget gap.  Rural cities and counties are crying the blues, as well as other traditional severance tax collectors such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  This Board uses severance tax money to give out loans to water districts for water projects.

So traditionally, the severance tax money has been kept pretty far away from public education.  With the budget gap, the state needs to pull back some of this money from water, agriculture, cities and counties to prevent complete public school funding catastrophe.  As Hickenlooper says, “Public education is our most important priority.  What can be more important than educating our children to prepare them to be quality workers for our future?”

What can be more important?  Water projects for dam repair and storage?  Roads?  Tourism?  The Governor has chosen to put $17 million into tourism, money that might otherwise go to public education.  He has also chosen to put dollars into economic development and job expansion.  He has chosen to pull out only $31 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, out of $116 million.

What he has not done is set a water conservation policy that will reduce the need for agriculture and municipal water storage.  He has not set an extraction policy that will ensure the state receives the best value for its minerals, oil, and gas property.  He has decided that the state is not in the mood to raise revenue, because Coloradans have to vote to increase any tax, including the severance tax.  He has decided not to make the case to the state’s population that now is the time to review our tax policy and contradictory tax constitutional amendments.

The Governor has decided that now is the time to cut state revenues, even though the state has been cutting for the last three years.  He is apparently receiving advice from the business community that its interests are more important than public education, and six year olds can take it on the chin.

Unfortunately, the 2011-12 budget is just the beginning for school districts.  The revenues look bad for several years out.  And the Governor has already committed to at least two years of every government worker sucking it up, even though they have already experienced two years of up sucking.

State Republicans are firm against raising taxes, and are even trying to restore tax credits lost last year, including for bull semen, a uniquely Colorado tax feature.  Many Republicans want tax decreases, even as they say that education is their most important priority.  Frankly, with public school teachers unionized, public education will never be the Republican’s most important priority.  And with the Democratic Governor in thrall of cutting state revenue, public education, no matter what he says, is not his top priority.

Watering and feeding business and agriculture supersedes watering and feeding the brains of the state’s children.

Colorado Amendments 60-61 and Prop 101 to bury us, but not in debt

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Proponents of three anti-tax initiatives in Colorado, known colloquially as the ‘three blind mice,’ argue that Colorado citizens are over-taxed and that state government is inherently wasteful. They make these claims even though Colorado ranks 46th lowest in combined state and local taxes.

Colorado revenues will take big hit with three initiatives
The ‘three blind mice‘ attack state revenues, already low from the recession and other constitutional amendments, in novel and imaginative ways.

  • Proposition 101 will cut $2 billion+ in car fees, income tax and phone bill rates. The vehicle ownership fee will plummet to $2, cutting funds directly out of school budgets.
  • Amendment 60 will cut local school property taxes by 50%; the state will have no money to backfill the loss. The amendment will also override previous local elections in which citizens voted to exempt themselves from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) effects. Most inventive, citizens will be able to run elections to reduce their mill levy.
  • Amendment 61 will prohibit the state from using any debt for any reason. All capital expenses will have to be paid with cash, upfront. School districts that borrow from the state at 0% interest to cover payroll in the months when property tax collections are low will be prohibited from doing so. The school year in those districts would have to run from March to November when property tax dollars are highest. Winter will be the new summer.  (Colorado Blue Book on Amendments and Propositions)


Public school funding tanks since 1988

Colorado’s per student funding has dropped steadily in comparison to other states since 1988. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado was $1397 below the national average in per-student funding in 2007, before the recession. In its 2010-11 budget, the Colorado legislature gouged out $354 million in prek-12 cuts, or $400 to $500 per student. 2011-12 looks no better, and may be worse.

Colorado Higher Ed funding 48th in the country
The legislature now allows state colleges to increase their tuition up to 9% per year to offset the state’s 48th ranking in per capita spending, which has plummeted to $159/year. Neighboring state Wyoming spends $709 per capita, New Mexico $581 per capita, Nebraska $404 per capita, Kansas $360 per capita, and Utah $296 per capita (State Higher Education Executive Officers, SHEEO). Even Mississippi substantially exceeds Colorado’s spending at $372 per capita.

Cheap car registration or very high college tuition for CO?
Voters face a huge choice in 2010. If the initiatives pass, the state will not be able to continue its school construction projects in the rural areas of the state authorized by the legislature. School districts will not be able to do capital improvements without cash on hand. There will be no more physical improvements to the University of Colorado medical facility and no money for more construction at any state college or university.

On the other hand, vehicle registration will be really, really cheap and Colorado will have no new debt.