Candidates for the Denver Public Schools board have lots of ideas about how the district could better spend its money, but it’s not clear that they can find enough savings to make their dream programs reality.
Three seats are open on the seven-member board: District 1, District 5 and an at-large position. The new members will take office about a year after the district’s teachers walked off the job, and while an agreement to end the strike raised pay, they’ll face demands to spend more to retain teachers and to provide students more services like mental health support.
This is the final story in a Denver Post series about issues facing the district.
Even if DPS eliminated all departments and contracts the candidates mentioned as targets for savings — not likely, since some said they only wanted to reduce spending in those areas, and the existing board members haven’t shown enthusiasm for deep cuts — it would save only about $7.9 million. While that may sound substantial, it’s about 0.5% of the district’s $1.5 billion budget, and roughly $86 for each of the nearly 92,000 students.
The district’s administrative offices were a favorite target for potential savings. Brad Laurvick, who is running in District 5, said some districts spend less centrally, but achieve better student outcomes. Natela Manuntseva, who is running for the at-large seat, said she wants to find out if DPS has too many central employees, since it was able to cut more than 150 positions in response to the teachers strike earlier this year.
“Why were they there in the first place?” she asked.
Tony Curcio, who is running in District 5, said he would like to reduce bureaucratic spending, but he’s not sure that cutting the central office will yield easy savings. Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who is running for the at-large seat, said DPS probably can find some savings, but the administrative budget looks bigger than it is because custodians’ and cafeteria workers’ salaries are counted centrally.
“We have to be very careful when cutting the central budget,” she said.
The district reports about 66% of the budget goes directly to schools to manage. Another 29% goes for centralized services like maintenance, the Department of Safety, the choice and curriculum offices, and career tech services. The remaining 5% includes the superintendent, communications, legal affairs and other central offices.
A few candidates listed specific departments they thought should be trimmed. Julie Bañuelos, who is running in District 5, said she’d like to see the district cut back on marketing and its choice office. The district spends about $1.5 million on its choice office and $3.3 million for all communications, including not only marketing but also translation services and internal communication.
“The basics haven’t been taken care of,” she said. “DPS is spending millions on marketing to uphold a false narrative.”
Bañuelos and Tay Anderson, who is running for the at-large seat, both also called to eliminated the $721,000 contract with the Denver Police Department for school resource officers.
Anderson said he thinks central administrators with six-figure contracts should only receive their full pay if students hit certain growth targets. The district has 340 employees who earn $100,000 or more, including 15 teachers and 106 principals or assistant principals. Those top earners account for about $40.2 million in compensation, or less than 3% of the total budget.
“You don’t get to earn a salary of $260,000 if our teachers are being held to a different standard,” Anderson said.
Scott Baldermann, who is running in District 1, said he’d like to see DPS discontinue its school ranking system, which cost about $900,000 last year, and reduce the $1.5 million it spends on managing the “portfolio” of schools.
“I don’t like that our schools are competing,” he said. “Our energy should be put into collaboration.”
Capital costs and upfront investments
Radhika Nath, who is running in District 1, said DPS needs to bring its spending on administration and buildings under control, because both have increased faster than enrollment. In one case, a middle school built a new dance studio, but didn’t budget for a teacher and hasn’t been able to offer dance classes, she said. DPS officials attributed the increase in spending on buildings to several bonds voters have passed since 2000.
“You’re starting to talk about a level of burden on schools,” she said. “We have to first create a system that is transparent, that is accountable.”
Anderson suggested the district also could save money by condensing administration for shared campuses like Montbello, with one principal over what are now separate schools. Erik Johnson, DPS’ executive director of finance, said his team hasn’t modeled consolidating schools, and he expects it would be unpopular.
Diana Romero Campbell, who is running in District 1, said she’d like to see the district look for efficiencies among departments and doing more to build partnerships with nonprofits to support students.
Laurvick suggested the district could save some money by raising pay for maintenance staff, because it would be able to hire full-time employees instead of spending more for outside contractors. Curcio also thought the district could save more if it spent in the right places, such as early childhood education and identifying students with disabilities early.
“We’ll save money in the long run on remediation for the problems we’ve been ignoring,” Curcio said.
Most candidates acknowledged they weren’t going to be able to fund everything that schools might want or need, however.
Curcio and Baldermann said they would support evaluating which programs are most effective and cutting those that weren’t producing strong results. Laurvick said the district should examine programs that it continued after the grants that originally funded them ran out.
“We need to look at how many of those things are serving our students,” Laurvick said.
The district should fund a few priorities for all schools, which might be a math coach, social worker or nurse, depending on what community input suggests, Menocal Harrigan said. The remaining money would then be divided up, and the collaborative school committees would rank their priorities for funding based on what they think is most important for students’ success, knowing they won’t be able to do everything, she said.
Manuntseva and Romero Campbell said they also would support giving principals more authority to choose how to use the funds they receive.
School leaders “know they need a teacher or a teacher and a para(professional) or two paras,” Romero Campbell said. “Those decisions should be coming from what’s happening on the ground.”