Scrooge haunts Denver Public Schools

Charter schools, contractors under the state department of education or a school district, are accustomed to poor-cousin treatment.Charter schools must jump through more hoops, have longer school years, and pay for their facilities out of their operating budget.

District schools have less discretionary budget, but need not worry about balancing, rent or a mortgage against salaries, utilities, curriculum or copy toner like a charter school. It is all decided for them. Each budget is planned for them based on projected student population, which is also decided for them. There are some areas with a little discretion: biology teachers versus language arts teachers, social worker versus nurse, number of security personnel and facility maintenance (janitors, landscaping personnel, etc).

Most district schools, as well as charter schools develop a budget in January based on building needs, student needs, salaries, and the school’s mission based on projected enrollment, projected fundraising, and the school’s improvement plan. In a charter school, the individual school’s budget is approved by the school’s board of directors. In a regular district school, the individual school’s budget is approved by the superintendent then the board of education. Now the schools have an expenditure plan. Although very similar in product produced, charter schools are truly managed more like a small business than a government bureaucracy.

For the most part, student enrollment projections are fairly accurate, so most budgets are accurate as well. Recently, however, one of Colorado’s premier districts discovered its five year student enrollment projections were off and cuts were made in all areas, rather than adding facilities and personnel as was planned, cuts and tabling improvements were made. Scrambling to make cuts is not an easy thing to do for a school district or an individual school. So what does this have to do with giving DPS the nickname, Scrooge?

My employer, Colorado High School Charter, is a small alternative high school chartered through Denver Public Schools. It is a second chance for students 16 and above to develop positive academic habits and earn a diploma. Our board of directors, after looking at our budget, granted us the opportunity to have a part-time educator for the second half of the school year. We had just enough in our budget to cover the salary for someone working with students a few hours a week. We decided to look for an experienced special educator.

We could be flexible with the teacher‘s area of strength since our special educator (me) is AC/DC, able to teach remedial reading, writing, mathematics and other content areas. This will allow us to provide more remediation in mathematics when so many of our 16+ year olds are performing between the fourth and sixth grade level, products of urban school districts and their own poor choices, and we would have been able to give more support in literacy. Again, many of our students read and write at the elementary or early middle school level.

But in the first week of December, DPS placed a big chunk of coal in our stocking! The powers that be insisted on raising the rates that charter schools spend in retirement allocations for DSPRS. They raised it with no notice and wanted it NOW (within 10 days). That's barely more notice than investors get on a margin call.

“Bah humbug!” the central administration roared. So it's no additional teacher for our enterprising little charter. No additional help for students who have been left behind or fallen through the cracks at the hands of large, impersonal district schools. Again, student needs are trumped by district policy. The needs of the adults (read employees) are more important than the needs of the students (read customer) and whenever possible, make sure charter schools cannot serve the needs of the students that the district schools failed to serve. Ho! Ho! Ho!