Earlier this week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a state budget that would cut $375 million from K-through-12 spending for the 2011-12 school year. In Falcon School District 49, Board of Education Vice President Chris Wright says, they're already bracing to cut $6 million to $9 million, or 10 to 12 percent of its budget.
Preparing for these cuts has been the primary motivator for the board, he says, as it's laid out a new and widely unpopular course.
Chaos erupted inside Falcon School District 49 a few weeks ago, when news leaked out that the board would make deep cuts to its transportation budget. Then the board bought out four top administrators' contracts for $1.1 million — a huge expense, it appeared, for a district crying poverty.
Finally, board members announced they would move forward aggressively to re-engineer D-49 as an Innovation School Zone. Only one other district, Kit Carson, has applied for district-wide restructuring under the 2008 Innovation Act, and with only 100 students in a single schoolhouse, it is minuscule compared to the sprawling D-49. Falcon has about 15,000 students, with 16 traditional schools, four charter schools, and one online.
It would be a radical move, one that has teachers concerned and, as Wright admits, comes with no reassuring track record. But to provide efficient, effective education, he says, it's exactly what D-49 needs.
First, let's address the buyouts.
"You spend $1.1 million today and you save $600,000 next year," Wright says. "And in five years, you have saved $3 million to $4 million, because those positions are not being refilled."
Superintendent Brad Schoeppey agreed to a buyout, Wright says, after it was clear the superintendent position would become a chief education officer position. Schoeppey's duties will be split between the CEO, responsible for educational aspects, and a chief operating officer handling the day-to-day business operation.
At the heart of restructuring are three new innovation leader positions, which will be filled by the high school principals. They'll oversee the elementary and middle schools feeding each high school.
Despite the "innovation"-laden terminology, these changes are not contingent on D-49 winning Colorado Department of Education approval as an innovation zone. They are happening regardless, Wright says, and will push down staffing, finance and curriculum responsibility to schools, making them more efficient and responsive.
Academically, D-49 actually has performed fairly well; it was one of 97 Colorado schools last year to receive the second-highest accreditation rating from the CDE. But Wright says its inner workings have dragged down classroom achievement. He uses the hypothetical of a third-grade English teacher wanting to change a book used in class. The school doesn't have funding set aside to buy this new book, nor does it have permission from the district.
Currently, Wright says, that teacher would submit the change to his principal who, if she agrees, then submits it to the district. The district sends it to a committee, then it goes to the deputy superintendent and superintendent.
"It is not unreasonable for that process to take two years," Wright says. "So your third-grade students who are having that particular challenge, are in fifth grade, and that teacher just got permission to make that change."
Making it work
In an innovation zone, there's no getting out of federal laws, such as No Child Left Behind, or standardized testing. But the designation allows schools to apply for state waivers to bypass other laws, such as in curriculum and pay standards.
Teachers are worried that the law would allow the district to hire non-certified teachers, cut pay, eliminate tenure and increase work hours, all without oversight; a letter has been circulating to that effect among faculty. But Wright says that none of these changes can be made without majority approval of teachers, administrators and the school advisory council, comprising teachers, parent representatives and students.
Kady Dodds, senior policy associate with the Colorado Board of Education, says that is accurate. For applications to be approved by the state, evidence of majority support by teachers and administrators has to be documented. If, after being accepted, a school in the district, or the district itself, wants to revise its innovation plan, says Dodds, the same groups would have to support any revision.
"The idea is that schools and districts should have all the autonomy they need to make changes for a new approach, but there is a pesky law in the way that might make sense for a lot of schools, but not for their particular school," Dodds says. "Similar to a charter school, a school can figure out what their plan is, what their strategies are, how they want to approach their curriculum and their scheduling, and get flexibility with people, time, and money.
"It's an opportunity to be creative."
Applied to an entire district, instead of an individual school, that's a lot of creativity. And Wright admits there is no evidence that schools designated as innovation zones have improved test scores or saved money. But he believes in its potential, and the idea of more localized control.
"Parents, along with their teachers, can decide what they want to focus on," Wright says. "Each school and innovation zone will become experts on certain things. ... Parents can decide what the focus is going to be for their child's education, and they can do it in a charter school or a public school."