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Online high school will lose money in first year, Stevenson says

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By AJ Vicens

Jeffco Public Schools' new online high school will lose money its first year but should be self-supporting soon after, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson recently told a group of representatives from homeowner associations.

Stevenson also gave an update on the district's budget and teacher contract negotiations at the June 3 meeting of the Council of Homeowner Organizations for a Planned Environment.

The online school, called the 21st Century Virtual Academy, will need at least 250 students to be self-supporting, which is more than double the 105 who have signed up so far, Stevenson said.

Just like any other public school in Colorado, Jeffco's virtual academy will not charge tuition. Some students will be full-time and others part-time, Stevenson said. The district hopes eventually to capture roughly 800 students that live in Jeffco but use online schooling in other districts.

"That's 800 kids we don't get funding for," Stevenson said. "We know we have to expand our online learning (options). We have to."

The district gets $6,700 per student in state funding.

The virtual academy will be available for students in grades nine through 12 and will require the same number of credits and testing that any other student must complete to graduate. The school has teachers, an educational coach for the teachers, a principal, a librarian and a counselor.

"It's a regular high school that's going to be done online," Stevenson said.

She added that the school is geared toward students who are at-risk, who may not do well in social settings or who want to graduate early. The online school will also try to attract home-school students.

Several people at the June 3 meeting questioned the amount of social interaction the students would miss while attending an online school and questioned how the students would take tests in a controlled environment.

Some testing will be done online, but the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests will be done at one of several district buildings.

The district will also have to work out the student-to-teacher ratio. According to Jeffco teachers' contracts, teachers can work with up to 150 students per day.

"We're still trying to figure out how to make that work," Stevenson said.

School board member Rick Rush, who attended the June 3 meeting with Stevenson, said the school helps prepare students for college, where many classes are offered online.

Stevenson also discussed the district's budget and teacher contract negotiations. She said the district trimmed $12 million from its budget after the failed bond election in November 2008.

"Our expenses go up more than our income," Stevenson said. "It's a crazy system, but that's how it works."

She said the district lost $19 per student in funding from the state during the last school year.

She added that the district has roughly $160 million in reserves, some of which will go to paying teachers more money. But the district received only $8.5 million in new money, the majority of which will be absorbed by added compensation for district staff.

"We are deficit-spending right now," Rush said. "We're spending (off the reserves) more than we bring in."

The district is currently at an impasse with the Jeffco teacher union over pay increases due Sept. 1.

Rush said the district should be able to parlay the fact that there is a waiting list for teachers to work in the district to its advantage.

Stevenson told the homeowner association representatives that the district is getting $27 million in federal stimulus funding over two years, which has prevented some young teachers from losing their jobs. That money will come for only two years, after which the district will either have to cut the positions or come up with new money, Stevenson said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.