PERFORMANCE AND PENSIONS IN DENVER SCHOOLS

Written by Patricia Hawke for www.schoolsk-12.com

When thinking of Denver, Colorado, do you think of beautiful, snow-capped peaks soaring into the heavens?  The Denver Schools system has goals that resemble high mountains…attainable yet challenging. The Denver Schools’ district has three “overarching” goals: 
 
1.      Set high expectations for all students
2.      Raise the overall achievement level
3.      Close the achievement gap
 
To meet these goals, the district is focusing on six strategies, which include enhancing literacy and math skills, offering more after-school help, strengthening middle and high schools, improving professional development for principals and teachers, and increasing parental involvement.
 
The Denver Schools’ system is widely recognized as one of the best urban school systems in the country.  Its roots can be traced to 1859, when the city was founded.  The Denver Schools’ district was officially created in 1902 when voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the City and County of Denver. 
 
Denver Schools are made up of 73 elementary schools, 15 K-8 schools, 17 middle schools, 14 high schools, 19 charter schools, 6 “other” schools, and 7 alternative schools.  Student enrollment as of October 1, 2006 was 73,399.  57% of students are Hispanic, 20% are White, 18% are Black, 3% are Asian, and 1% is American Indian.  20% (or 14,450) of Denver Schools’ students are English Language Learners, and 13,337 students are Spanish speakers.  Another 1,113 students speak one of 86 other languages. Denver Schools offer an impressive array of foreign language classes.  These include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Lakota, Latin, Russian, and Spanish.  4,555 teachers are employed by the Denver Schools’ district, and the average teacher salary is $47,829. Denver Schools have a graduation rate of 76.9%, and a dropout rate (which considers all students in grades 7 through 12) of 4.6%.
 
Performance and statistics are not the only issues affecting the Denver Schools’ system.  A proposal by Superintendent Michael Bennet to cut the district’s pension plan is under heated discussion by board members and teachers alike. Bennet’s plan is to pay J.P. Morgan 5.5% a year for the use of $375 million. This would allow the district to use about $11 million that would have gone into the pension and put it into the classroom instead.  Of course, the Denver Schools’ system must ultimately fund the pension; any short-term losses would be their responsibility.  The district asserts that it is committed to funding the pension plan, and is making all the contributions it has committed to.  The pension board sees this plan differently.  They fear that if the money doesn’t earn 8.5% each year, they will lose money in the deal.  (8.5% is the sum of the 5.5% and the district’s withheld monies)  Also according to the pension board, the proposal prepared by J.P. Morgan would have the pension fund borrow $375 million at 5.5% interest, using its $2.8 billion in assets as collateral.  Some see this as a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.  If, and it’s a big IF opponents argue, the fund returns 8.5%, the district could use that 3 percentage point difference (which would equal approximately $11 million) in the classroom instead.  The showdown between the Denver Schools and the pension board comes as the district is also considering closing schools as a way to cope with its deteriorating finances.  In the past four years, Denver Schools have cut $83.5 million dollars from its budget.

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