DPS employee associations’ budget priorities don’t add up

Late last month, just as tough, COVID-19-related budget cuts of up to $61 million loomed, representatives of eight Denver Public Schools employee associations wrote to the school board and Budget Advisory Committee, offering a list of seven priorities (page 2 of document here) focused on what to cut and what to preserve.

The priorities offer an interesting mix of sensible ideas and naked self-interest. The self-interest aspect wouldn’t be surprising or wrongheaded under normal circumstances. In the current context, however, it gets in the way of making numbers add up.

The essence of what the associations are requesting:

  • Making sure teacher cost of living and “steps and lanes” raises aren’t touched, and that some budget reductions come from:
  • Eliminating administrative bonuses;
  • Axing of some third-party contracts;
  • Waiving of “unfunded state mandates,” including teacher accountability requirements;
  • Deeply cutting district departments with “limited student contact;”
  • Issuing furloughs, if necessary, targeting primarily the highest paid central administrators. Administrator bonuses should be eliminated as well.

Associations also are calling for using COVID response funds to beef up the cadre of nurses and mental health supports in schools, as well as “fully staffed custodial crews.” How much they’re proposing that the district spend on this priority is unclear. But adding expenses when deep cuts are unavoidable requires deeper cuts elsewhere.

It’s hard to fathom how some of the priorities are grounded in reality. Preserving all COLAs and ‘steps and lanes’ raises, while desirable under normal circumstances, seems all but impossible now. According to DPS information presented to the school board last month, eliminating COLAs and ‘steps and lanes’ raises would save the district $23 million next school year.

Given that 84 percent of the general fund budget goes to employee pay, those two areas represent by far the largest savings options available to the district. The other-big-ticket savings would be to tap into district reserves. That could total $34 million if the school board decided to cut reserves from 10 percent to 7 percent. But tapping represents a one-time savings and wouldn’t address ongoing COVID-19-related budget woes, which could look even worse a year from now.

While we don’t yet know exactly how much must be cut from the budget, the district is proceeding under the assumption that it will total about $61 million. How do you get there without touching educator pay? It’s painful even to ask that question, and the Budget Advisory Committee is trying to avoid going there. But it’s hard to see how the cuts associations are proposing come close to offsetting this expense.

On Friday, the Budget Advisory Committee examined how much would be saved by making various other cuts to the budget. Furloughing all employees for two days would save $8 million, and would reduce the average teacher’s salary by $11.33 per paycheck. Progressive pay reductions of between 0 and 3 percent, excluding low-wage workers, would save another $6.7 million. Eliminating all incentives for school leaders (for serving in a high-poverty school, a ‘top priority’ school, or a large school, and for boosting performance) would save $6 million.

Efficiencies that include bell-time adjustments (up to $4 million) and reducing or eliminating transportation for non-special education students (between $8 and $15 million, depending on the severity of the cuts) yield additional savings.

Getting rid of the district’s Student Performance Framework “allocations to schools” could save up to $2.2 million. Eliminating standardized testing would net savings of $750,000.

Ditching third-party contracts would yield an as-yet-to-be determined amount. But the three contracts that seem to put a bee in the associations’ bonnets — Relay Graduate School of Education, University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and RevGen Partners, cost the district an aggregate total of $2.2 million last year.

Let’s hope that what is happening here is that the employee groups are staking out a position, fully realizing they’ll have to compromise. Because, as you can see from the numbers above, their priorities don’t add up to a balanced budget.

Not even close.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.