Across the nation, many school districts are being engulfed by a complex crisis, one that includes stagnant academic results (made worse by COVID-19 learning losses), falling enrollment and revenue, rising salary and benefits costs, schoolbuilding underutilization/overcapacity, and the imminent end of billions in federal pandemic aid.
Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently said that this looming fiscal cliff is “Armageddon” and “going to be a hurricane of massive proportions.”
Because this crisis is developing much more quickly here in Jefferson County, it has become the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for what lies ahead across America.
In 2012, the Jeffco school district spent $446 million on salary and benefits to serve 77,143 students in its district-run schools. Ten years later, it spent $702 million, or 57% more, to serve 69,526 students — 10% fewer.
Sixty-eight Jeffco schools now operate at less than 80% of capacity, which is a threshold used by many school districts to define low utilization. While 48 of those operate at below 65% of capacity, Jeffco is proposing to close only 16 of them this year, with more almost certainly needing to be closed in future years. And since 2018, almost all these underutilized schools have received millions of dollars in new investment under the district’s capital improvement program.
One reason enrollment has fallen is the steady decline in Jeffco’s academic performance. For example, a July 2022 EdChoice/Morning Consult poll found that parents’ top three school choice criteria are that it is close, safe, and has strong academic results. With 48% of Jeffco students choicing away from their neighborhood school, many parents are willing to sacrifice proximity for the other two benefits.
In 2019, before COVID-19 arrived, 54% of Jeffco 3rd graders were not proficient on the state reading assessment (the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS) – an improvement of only 2% from 2015. In 6th grade math, performance got worse: 65% weren’t proficient in 2019, compared to 58% who weren’t proficient in 2015.
The 2022 state assessment results showed that COVID-19 learning losses have made Jeffco’s situation even worse. For example, even though more than 3,000 students who had low scores in 2019 didn’t take the 2022 CMAS, this year a shocking 70% of 6th graders failed to meet the state math proficiency standard!
In Colorado, all 11th grade students take the SAT. This is the last measure we have of the effectiveness of our school districts in meeting their primary goal of educating our children. In 2022, Jeffco’s 11th grade SAT scores continued their five-year slide.
The decline in Jeffco’s academic performance has contributed to the flight of parents from its neighborhood schools, where enrollment has declined by 11,058 students since 2012. Of those, 2,050 went to district-run Option Schools, 1,952 to district Charter Schools, and 7,056 left the district across all grades, including moves to other states, districts, and private, religious, and home schools.
Georgetown’s EdunomicsLab estimates that Jeffco needs to spend $120 million on tutoring during the next three years to recover COVID-19 learning losses and bring student achievement results back up to their (unacceptable) 2019 level.
But the district doesn’t plan to spend anywhere near that amount, because its financial situation is becoming dire.
Despite receiving millions in federal and state COVID-19 aid, next year the Jeffco school district must reduce its reserves by $33 million to cover its budget deficit. That deficit is projected to grow to $39 million in 2024 and $58 million in 2025. This will leave just $38 million in unallocated reserves.
Absent either new revenue or dramatic cost cuts to eliminate projected budget deficits, in 2026 Jeffco will go below the minimum amount of reserves required by Colorado law (i.e., its TABOR reserve), which will trigger automatic remedial actions, including the possible imposition of an emergency tax increase on Jeffco residents.
It is this worsening financial crisis that is forcing Jeffco to close 16 elementary schools this year, with more closures to come in 2023. However, closing schools won’t reduce the budget deficit unless staff are also cut.
For example, at the end of 2021, Jeffco had 9,238 full time equivalent employees, each of whom costs an average of $76,000 in salary and pension, health and other benefits. Using this average cost, and absent one-time proceeds from the sale of closed schools, Jeffco will need to cut 434 employees just to eliminate its projected $33 million deficit in 2023.
But that won’t generate the additional cash needed to pay for all the initiatives needed to reverse Jeffco’s academic decline.
Whether district management will propose, and the current union-backed board majority will approve, the painful changes needed in Jeffco remains to be seen.
In sum, there is a grave risk that Jeffco’s plunge into financial distress will pass a tipping point and become uncontrollable, as more parents flee district-run schools, and the talented outsiders new Superintendent Tracy Dorland has brought into Jeffco abandon a sinking ship.
Worst of all, it will be Jeffco’s children, homeowners, and businesses that suffer the consequences, not the adults who will have destroyed a once-great school district.
Tom Coyne is an executive at Britten Coyne Partners, and a former member of Jefferson County School District Accountability Committee. He is married to Jeffco Public Schools Board Director Susan Miller. The opinions in this column are Tom Coyne’s alone.
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