As the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m., more than 100 parents crammed into the cafeteria, sitting shoulder to shoulder at lunch tables. Everyone seemed anxious to get through the next hour.
Whispers among a few parents broke into audible chatter as everyone heard, some for the first time, about the district’s financial challenges, lackluster academic performance and struggle to pay teachers a living wage while investing in students’ academic success.
School District 27J, which encompasses Commerce City, east Thornton, Brighton, and a smattering of eastern plains homes in unincorporated Adams County, is ranked last in the metro area for both first-year and average teacher salaries. It’s last for per-pupil funding in metro Denver and is in the bottom fifteen of the lowest-funded districts in the state. It doesn’t even have the money to update its textbooks, many of which are more than a decade old.
Fiedler outlined his plan to parents that night to lead 27J through unprecedented and unpopular change, whether they got behind him or not.
Pending a few bureaucratic steps, School District 27J will become the first urban school district in the state to transition to a four-day school week. It’s notoriety that Fiedler would rather not have, but a four-day school week is the only concession he thinks he has left to keep and attract quality teachers in the midst of a statewide teacher shortage and tighter public-school budgets.
“I believe deeply that if we give teachers more time — because that’s a valuable resource — we give them more time to be better prepared for kids, we will deliver. I believe that wholeheartedly,” Fiedler says of the benefits of a four-day week. “I believe graduation rates are going to go up. I believe our district and school performance frameworks are going to go up. I believe our SAT scores are going to go up. I believe we’re going to retain staff.
I believe we’re going to develop them and keep them. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Parents at the town hall had turned up thinking the proposal was just that, a suggestion to be discussed. Just a few months earlier, they were emailed surveys on later start times for middle and high school students. Most parents favored the proposal, and bell times will be pushed back in August.
But a four-day school week is a done deal as far as administrators are concerned. The only real discussion that evening revolved around parental concessions — hence the suggestion cards — to soften the blow.
“We can invest in a lot of things, but teachers make or break learning for kids,” says 27J Chief Academic Officer Will Pierce. “I can’t disagree with the consequence with a day of kids missing, but [it’s an] investment of time for quality. I want to make sure we get that with every day and every minute we have with them.”
At the end of the night, every suggestion card was collected and neatly stacked. Three weeks later, on February 27, the district’s Board of Education voted to back the superintendent’s plan, and 91 percent of educators in the district’s teachers’ association voted in favor of a four-day week.
For working families, the proposition is daunting. What would happen to their children on Mondays? How would they restructure their lives? As a district with nearly 40 percent of students living in poverty, the change would also mean up to two fewer meals for children who rely on free or reduced lunches.
The domino effect of deep budget cuts from the state, strict statewide fiscal policies and a voter base that is either unwilling or unable to shoulder an increased tax burden has forced 27J to find creative ways to work with less.
The four-day school week has created a schism in the community between those who can afford child care on the fifth day and those who cannot. Some parents in the latter camp aren’t willing to give into 27J’s plan just yet; they’re pushing for one last chance to turn the district around. But others see the writing on the wall, and they have no intention of staying behind to see how everything plays out.
Along 104th Avenue and east of Highway 2, signs for new homes entice interested homebuyers to peruse neighborhoods built by Lennar, Shea Homes and KB Homes. Development is springing up in Adams County in formerly vacant fields along the thirteen-mile stretch of I-76 between 96th and 160th avenues. New homes can be snagged in the low- to mid-$300s, a steal considering that the median value of all homes sold in metro Denver last year was $415,000.
School District 27J has a history as a small, mostly rural district with agricultural roots, but those days are long gone. Student enrollment has more than tripled, from 5,800 students in 2000 to nearly 18,000 students this school year, making it the fifteenth-largest school district in the state by enrollment. In the past decade alone, student enrollment has grown by 42 percent, making it the second-fastest-growing district in the six-county metropolitan area, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
But funding hasn’t kept pace with that extraordinary growth. The district spends $7,400 per student, which is 17 percent less than the $9,000-per-pupil average in metro Denver.
“There’s gross inequity in funding for kids,” Fiedler says. “I don’t think that my two boys who go to school here in the district are [worth] less than students in Boulder Valley, and they’re certainly not [worth] $2,000 less.”
Because wages are so low and pay freezes so frequent, a significant number of teachers at 27J earn money outside of the classroom to make ends meet. A 2017 survey from the Brighton Education Association, which represents 83 percent of 27J teachers, found that 60 percent of its members reported working a second job, with about half of those teachers working that job during the school year.
“The thing that’s really hard for our district is we have a really low starting salary, and it’s for all teachers, but I would say it mostly affects our younger teachers,” says BEA president Kathey Ruybal, who taught English for 23 years at Brighton High School until last year. “They’re coming into the profession with student loans, and teachers are required to be continually taking classes.”
The district isn’t unique in Colorado; its funding woes are the norm in a state that’s facing critical teacher shortages and chronic underfunding of public education by the state. A handful of state constitutional tax policies and education finance statutes have created a firestorm for public schools.
“I feel like if we don’t make the change now, it is going to be that bleak,” says Mapleton Public Schools Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio, who has been a voice for school finance reform in the state. She is lobbying for a bill that would change how the state funds education. “We have done every single thing we can possibly think of to make it work and to serve the children, but it’s heartbreaking to see school districts go to four-day school weeks. Those aren’t decisions people are making lightly. They’re making them because funding isn’t allowing them to serve the kids the way they need to be served.”
The tax woes of local government started in 1982, after an uprising of homeowners passed the Gallagher Amendment. The intent was to lower the tax burden on homeowners by balancing the overall property-tax revenue generated by residential and commercial property in the state. But the effect has been a ratcheting down of assessment rates that has put residential-heavy communities in a revenue bind.
As an example, the taxable value of a $100,000 home in 1982 was $21,000, or a 21 percent assessment rate. That same home at the same price would only have a taxable value of $7,200 today, or a 7.2 percent assessment rate. All commercial property is taxed at a 29 percent rate.
Gallagher alone wouldn’t be so difficult to stomach were it not for its sibling: the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Now, not only is the taxable value of homes dropping, but municipalities and school districts are unable to raise their mill levies — even if it’s just to make up for lost revenue — without a ballot measure.
At its best, TABOR keeps school districts and municipalities in stagnation. Even when property values soar, as they have along the Front Range, government is unable to capitalize on that growth. Without voter approval, TABOR forces local government and schools to lower their mill levies to keep revenue at the same level as that of the previous year (plus inflation and population growth). At TABOR’s worst, schools and local government are in perpetual free fall as they experience a diminished tax base, lowered mill levies and a constituency that is unable or unwilling to tax itself.
When Shannon Roberts moved into a brand-new home in Commerce City in 2014, she had no clue about 27J’s financial woes. She chose her home because it was both affordable for her family and zoned to Turnberry Elementary, a high-performing school in the district. Roberts quickly got involved at her kids’ school, joining the parent-teacher association, volunteering for after-school activities and getting to know teachers.
So when she heard that the district needed more money and was going to pursue a ballot measure in 2017, Roberts was quick to volunteer to help. She knew teachers who worked extra jobs, and she wanted to support any effort to pay them a fair wage. And given a contentious bond measure a few years prior, she knew 27J would face significant hurdles.
She joined the mill levy override committee to put forward a ballot question that would ask residents to voluntarily raise their taxes. It would be the district’s seventh attempt at a mill levy override in seventeen years. Of the previous six attempts, only the first was successful.
Mill levy overrides allow schools to raise money above the state’s calculation for per-pupil spending in a district. The value of all public-school mill levy overrides was $1.1 billion for the 2017-2018 school year in Colorado, with 120 of 178 school districts passing at least one override. Denver raises the most of any district in mill levy overrides, raking in more than $200 million a year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. (That doesn’t include overrides for full-day kindergarten, technology or transportation.) Other high-dollar overrides were passed by Cherry Creek and Jefferson County, each worth more than $100 million in additional revenue each year. The extra dollars allow districts to do everything from providing raises and increasing hiring to buying new equipment.
Roberts and her cohorts on the board were tasked with finding the answers to three major questions: How much money the district needed; what a realistic tax increase that would sit well with voters looked like; and how the money should be spent. The committee met a few times between February and March of 2017 to pore over thick binders of district budget documents, enrollment projections and other financials.
“We asked for $12 million, not because it was the amount we thought we needed, but because...it was the amount we thought had a chance of passing.”
Committee members quickly separated into camps of those who wanted to go all the way with the maximum amount of $38 million and those in what Roberts called the “realistic” group. She was firmly on the side of the realists, some of whom called for less than $10 million.
But just elevating per-pupil funding to the average in metro Denver would have required 27J to pass at least a $27 million mill levy override.
“There were so many people; we were divided down the line. We had people who were like, ‘Please, be realistic. Please, be realistic.’ Going for [$38 million] is not realistic,” Roberts recalls. “That’s when Will [Pierce] and Dr. Fiedler said if we’re going to ask for less than [$5 million], then [the ballot measure] is a total waste of our time.”
After a few meetings and prodding from the school district, the gulf between both sides shrank to two possibilities: $12 million, which is ten mills, or $18 million, which is around fifteen mills. As a homeowner, Roberts thought both of those proposals were too high. It’s not that either posed dramatic tax increases: A ten mill increase would cost an extra $220 a year for a home valued at $300,000, roughly the median price in 27J. But given that taxes were already so high in the district, Roberts was leery of adding too much more to the burden.
The district paid for public polling to see which of the two measures could pass at the ballot box. An $18 million tax question was a non-starter; only one-third of polled voters would have been in favor.
There was a glimmer of hope for the $12 million mill levy override: The predicted election-night win for that amount came in at 51.46 percent. Narrow victory was victory enough for the district and the committee.
“We asked for $12 million — not because it was the amount we thought we needed, but because...it was the amount we thought had a chance of passing,” Fiedler says.
School District 27J’s first and only successful mill levy override, which passed in 2000, is worth $750,000 annually. That comes out to about $43 extra per student per year. The proposed $12 million mill levy override would have increased that to an additional $728 per student per year.
Every other district in metro Denver has passed at least one mill levy override worth $1 million or more. These overrides, while born out of necessity, have created a patchwork of inequality across the state, pitting the haves against the have-nots — those who can’t pass an override, those who can only afford to pass a small override, and those who can rake in top dollar every time an override measure hits the ballot.
The money would have been split in several ways. Teachers in 27J would have had the biggest slice of the pie, with $5 million set aside for pay raises, which they hadn’t gotten in two years. Another $3.6 million was earmarked for technology upgrades, which would have provided every middle and high school student with Microsoft Surface tablets and electronic access to classroom resource materials. A million would have gone to elementary school counselors, and another $2.4 million would have gone to support the district’s charter schools.
The district mailed out thousands of handwritten postcards asking residents to approve Ballot Issue 3D. On back-to-school nights in August, Roberts and several other parent volunteers handed out fliers to drum up support for the initiative.
But while handing out fliers at Turnberry, Roberts was struck by the realization that most parents either had no idea about the ballot initiative or, worse, were opposed to it and didn’t want to hear her out.
When the ballot measure rolled around, instead of feeling hopeful for the future, Roberts was anxious. Her months of hard work had whittled down to a ballot measure that had only about a fifty-fifty chance of passing, and after her experience with other Turnberry parents, she harbored reservations.
“We got the mail-in ballot, and I’m sitting there in front of that thing, and I looked at my husband, and I said, ‘I’m going to vote yes, but I just don’t know that my yes is going to mean anything. I don’t know that my yes is going to push it over... .’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘I get what it’s going to pay for, I do. But it’s so much money. There’s nothing else we can do?’ I said, ‘Honey, I went to those meetings. … It’s not good.’”
With a sinking feeling, she and her husband checked the box for 3D and mailed in their ballots. Whatever was coming, she thought, wouldn’t be good.
On November 7, 2017, 3D failed, with 52 percent voting down the ballot measure. It was a blow to the district, but it didn’t come as a complete shock to Fiedler. He knew that families were already shouldering hefty property-tax bills. Adding an extra ten mills would have given 27J the third-highest school-district tax rate in metro Denver behind Adams 12 Five Star and Aurora.
Different theories circulated about why the election failed. Property-tax bills were mailed out earlier than expected — weeks before the ballot measure — and taxes were projected to go up substantially for many homeowners. (Several families say they experienced around a $2,000 increase in their taxes.) Roberts speculated that not enough community outreach was done to get community buy-in and that the ask was too high from the beginning. Other parents said the district didn’t have the right messaging — that the consequences of a no vote were never spelled out.
Whatever the reason, Fiedler’s confidence in passing a mill levy override was shaken. The district had put its hand out too often, and it wasn’t working. He was desperate to stave off a possible mass exodus of teachers.
“It isn’t that folks in 27J don’t support public education. It’s just a larger ask than some of our Denver metro neighbors,” Fiedler says.
The district has one of the lowest property-assessment values of its metro neighbors at $1.17 billion. If ten mills raises about $12 million in taxes, a property-wealthy district like Denver Public Schools would only need a fraction of one mill to raise the same amount of tax dollars.
The district had no Plan B prepared when the mill levy override failed, so it was back to the drawing board.
Fiedler and his team spent all winter break crunching numbers to see where they might shave expenses and what they could do to stay attractive to teachers. That’s when the idea emerged for a four-day school week. At first, administrators speculated that there could be significant cost savings to closing the district one-fifth of a school week. But after further calculations, Fiedler says the district might only save $1 million.
“It’s less than 1 percent of our budget. It’s not a game-changer,” Fiedler says.
Colorado’s history of four-day school weeks dates back to the ’60s, when Primero Reorganized 2 School District, a small rural district in southern Colorado, became the first district to make the switch.
Other districts that followed suit reaped some benefits, like lower transportation costs, which could be significant to rural school districts with small budgets. But a four-day school week isn’t a moneymaker; districts typically only save 0.4 percent to 2.5 percent of their operating costs, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States. To date, 100 of the state’s 178 school districts use a four-day school week either district-wide or partially.
The number of districts switching to four-day school weeks has grown significantly since 2010, which is when state lawmakers instituted annual cuts to the education budget. Forty-four districts have implemented a four-day school week in the past eight years. But by and large, four-day school weeks have been a rural phenomenon — until 27J decided to take up the mantle.
A lack of funding pushed 27J down the path to a four-day school week, but money isn’t what turned Fiedler into a champion for the cause. If he didn’t have the resources to pay teachers more, he would give them the next best thing: time. No other district in metro Denver offers a four-day school week. On top of that, the district would give teachers a full hour each school day outside of class, which means more time to prepare curriculums, speak with parents, help struggling students or focus on professional development. That’s an increase from the twenty minutes current 27J teachers work with every day.
In four of the past eight years, 27J teachers have experienced a salary freeze. The salaries of more experienced teachers have continued to lag behind those of their peers in other districts, and there is a high turnover rate among younger teachers. And after the Great Recession, the district placed more students in each classroom to drive down expenses, straining teachers further.
“We do have very high class sizes,” says Ruybal of the Brighton Education Association. “It is not uncommon for a teacher at the high school level to have close to 200 students [total]. It is not uncommon for a middle school teacher to have over forty in a class.”
Better pay is still important, Ruybal says, and she hopes to keep pushing for raises. Right now, a four-day school week is the best option teachers have on the table, and they want it.
But a four-day school week would be a boon to some parents, a bust to others.
Families in the district with one stay-at-home spouse are more open to a four-day week, even thrilled to have the extra time with their kids. Other parents are unconcerned; their kids might be older and can take care of themselves.
But the families who rely on district-provided adult supervision while they are away making ends meet are flabbergasted by the move.
Jessica Johnson is one of these parents. As a single mother of two daughters, a third-grader at Landmark Academy and a sixth-grader at Stuart Middle School, Johnson works hard to align her schedule with her children’s. She negotiates drop-off times in the morning and relies on friends for after-school carpools for her youngest. (Landmark is a charter school with no transportation options.) Luckily, her older daughter takes the bus home. For early-release days and holidays, Johnson leans on friends and family, or she might take the day off. She orchestrates it all so that her kids are never home alone, at least not for more than an hour.
Johnson feels like the district has left parents out of critical decision-making that will directly impact their lives. She works tirelessly as it is to ensure that her kids are adequately supervised. Now the district is asking her to figure it out every Monday.
“I understand that the mill levy didn’t pass in November, and I know something has to be done,” Johnson says. “But it doesn’t feel like this is the best way to go about it.”
Johnson is part of an active group of parents trying to persuade the district to give them one last chance before committing to a four-day school week. They’re asking the district to hold off for a year so that another mill levy override measure can get on the ballot this November. If it fails again, they would line up behind the district. But they’re certain that with all the cards on the table this time around, it will pass.
As it stands, families will spend more each year on child care and other community activities for those Mondays than they would have on additional taxes had the 2017 mill levy override passed.
“Maybe we do another mill levy, and now you know the severity of it. If you don’t vote this in, then it goes to a four-day [week]. It needs to happen. We need to value our education just a little bit more,” Johnson says, adding that since most 27J residents aren’t parents, the next mill levy proposal should include a more robust outreach program.
Fiedler isn’t moved by that argument. Mill levy overrides have consistently failed in 27J. And had it passed, the $12 million ballot measure still wouldn’t have spelled success for the district, just another short-term solution to a larger issue. Fiedler says the district is growing so fast, he will need more campuses in another few years, and that means another bond question. He doesn’t want to risk voter fatigue.
And he wants to keep teachers in the district. Fiedler points out that after the failed 2014 bond, the district experienced a 22 percent teacher turnover rate the following year, slightly higher than the state average of 20.65 percent at the time. Looking at the previous three district bonds and mill levy questions, not including 2017, a no-vote has resulted in higher than average teacher turnover.
But for the 2016-2017 school year, the teacher turnover rate was 12.41 percent, more than four percentage points lower than the state average and the fourth-lowest turnover in the metro area.
“After the bond failed in 2014, we had a big turnover rate in the following year. When it passed [in 2015], we had a lower turnover rate,” Ruybal says. “We attribute that [high turnover] to teachers feeling unsupported, a lack of hope. When the mill failed last year, we anticipated having [a] higher turnover rate [this spring].”
Amy, a fifteen-year resident of the district with two kids, a freshman in high school and a middle-schooler, is not drinking the 27J Kool-Aid. She doesn’t believe a four-day school week will equate to better academic performance or that it is an effective recruitment tool. A 2011 Colorado Department of Education study showed similar academic growth and student performance between rural districts on four-day and five-day school weeks. At the very least, students weren’t worse off by the shorter calendar week. (A four-day week still maintains the state-required student contact hours.)
“I think it’s a joke,” says Amy (who declined to give her last name). “I don’t agree with their rationale for recruiting and retaining teachers because they have one of the lowest turnover rates in the Denver metro area. That excuse is crap.
“It’s a political move because they’re mad about the mill levy override not passing, and they’re trying to piss people off,” Amy continues. “They don’t care about how this will affect people.”
What worries Amy most is a district full of unsupervised adolescents, which she thinks will lead to increased rates of teen pregnancy, drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. She and a few other parents have passed out fliers titled “Learn the Facts” that push against the district’s narrative and warn parents about what they believe to be the risks of a four-day school week.
If 27J pulls the trigger on a four-day school week, Amy says she will pick up her family and move to another district. The Denver housing market is so hot, she knows she could sell her home quickly and make the transition in time for the next school year.
“People can’t just start working four days a week, but personally, my concern is for the older kids,” she says. “There’s just nothing for these kids to do on their day off.”
With overwhelming teacher support for a four-day school week and the district’s Board of Education on his side, Fiedler isn’t changing course. He plans to submit the district’s application to be approved for a four-day week to the Colorado Department of Education this spring. The department has never denied such a request.
A loose coalition of school-district leaders known as Colorado Superintendents is trying to push a bill through the state legislature that would tackle state funding.
Every year, the state calculates the money each district is entitled to receive through a school funding formula. The state then determines the local share — dollars raised by traditional mill levies, not overrides, and vehicle-registration taxes — and backfills the rest to meet that calculated entitlement. So in theory, districts only get what the state says they’re entitled to.
But that’s far from reality. School districts with large tax bases and a willing pool of voters could pass mill levy overrides to raise millions of dollars above and beyond their state calculated allotment, which is inadequate to begin with.
“It is far outdated,” says Walt Cooper, the Cheyenne Mountain School District superintendent, about the state funding formula. “It is woefully underfunded, and even if it was fully funded today...it doesn’t provide adequate resources for special education, English-language learners.”
“The menu of responsibilities is only growing, and if the funding doesn’t keep up with those expansions, then something’s got to give.”
The state funding formula hasn’t been updated in nearly 25 years. It does not weigh the actual costs of educating more expensive students, like English-language learners, the gifted and talented, and low-income and special-education students. It even took a constitutional amendment just to get state lawmakers to include inflation in the formula. Once the Great Recession hit, lawmakers couldn’t afford to fund the cost of inflation, so they created a loophole called the budget stabilization — or BS — factor, and they haven’t looked back since.
In the 2017-2018 school year alone, the BS factor amounted to an across-the-board 11.1 percent cut to per-pupil funding for public schools, or about $828 million. (For 27J, that amounted to a $16 million haircut, more than the value of its failed 2017 mill levy override.) Cumulatively, the legislature has underfunded public education by $6.67 billion since it instituted the BS factor, according to the nonprofit Colorado School Finance Project, a nonpartisan group specializing in school-finance research.
The Colorado Superintendents’ bill would calculate the cost of educating every student, and that money would follow that student regardless of which district they were enrolled in. If the formula passed and was funded by the legislature, it would pour an estimated $1.5 billion back into public schools and end the deep budget cuts.
“The simple fact of the matter is, nothing is getting less expensive to provide,” Cooper says. “The menu of responsibilities is only growing, and if the funding doesn’t keep up with those expansions, then something’s got to give. If there’s any ray of sunshine in any of that, it’s that districts have had the local control to make those changes, cuts, eliminations, whatever they are.”
But that’s a big if. The bill doesn’t force the legislature to fund the formula, and unless state education cuts come to an end, it would never have the money to be implemented.
petition has started making the rounds to put a public-school funding measure on the statewide ballot. Initiative Number 93 could bring in $1.6 billion in additional state income taxes using a tiered rating system. Coloradans earning under $150,000 won’t pay more in taxes. Those earning at or above that threshold could see income taxes increase from 0.37 percent to 3.62 percent for the highest income bracket, which would be at or above $500,000. It would also raise taxes on certain domestic and foreign corporations by 1.37 percent.
All those dollars would fund full-day kindergarten, pay down the BS factor and increase per-pupil funding for all districts.
“I don’t think there’s one single silver bullet for any education issue, but you can’t have and keep good teachers without paying them an adequate salary,” says Martha Olson, a Boulder-based public-education activist and former New York educator who is representing the ballot initiative. “You can’t ask students in school to meet 21st-century standards when you’re using fifteen-, twenty-year-old textbooks and can’t afford to hire a computer-science teacher. This would actually try to bring Colorado schools to at least the national average. Right now, we’re spending $2,000 below the national average per student, and that’s not acceptable when we have one of the hottest economies in the country.”
Fiedler has conceded on the most important issue facing parents in the transition to a four-day school week: child care. School District 27J will offer to house K-5 students at nine elementary campuses for $30 each Monday. However, students will have to hitch a ride, since school buses won’t be an option. Students attending any of the district’s K-8 charter schools will keep a traditional five-day week.
Fiedler initially had reservations about the child-care concession since he doesn’t believe the mission of a public school should be to provide supervision. But he wanted to meet parents halfway.
“Based on all of the feedback, we’ve committed that we’re going to offer it. I’m not in love with it, but I get it,” Fiedler says.
Free meals will be offered at four of those campuses to accommodate the significant number of low-income families in their vicinity. Everyone else has to bring a lunch.
Parents with middle and high school students will be on their own, including teens at the lone charter high school, Eagle Ridge Academy. They can leave their kids at home or with a rotating group of friends and family, or scour the Internet for weekly activities.
Fiedler knows he still has work to do to win families over to his side, and he understands that some parents may very well choose to leave the district instead of giving him a chance. As for concerns around unsupervised adolescents, Fiedler says they’re overblown.
“There’s no specific research on a four-day week, but there is research that kids tend to get in trouble after 5 p.m. regardless of what day of the week it is,” he says, adding that “it sounds a lot like summer.”
If nothing else has convinced families to trust him, Fiedler has one last plea.
“Give us time to develop and grow for your kids. I guarantee we will be better. I guarantee it. If in three years we’re not better...come knock on my door or scream at my board. That’s how confident I am.”