From the Statehouse

PERA woes loom large for education

The state budget and school finance aren’t going to be the only big-money headaches facing legislators and education interests in 2010.

StockPERALogo102109The recently announced “rescue” proposal for the 438,000-member Public Employees’ Retirement Association carries a big price tag for school districts and colleges, and could affect the retirement incomes and retirement plans for thousands of past and current school and college employees. The plan also could leave some school districts with little flexibility for teacher raises.

Even though various interest groups in the discussion say they agree there has to be some shared sacrifice to bolster the financially battered pension system, questions and qualms already are surfacing over the plan approved by the PERA board on Oct. 16.

PERA was under a legislative deadline to present a reform plan by Nov. 1. The whole issue will be in squarely the lap of lawmakers in 2010, because only the legislature can change PERA benefits or contributions.

PERA’s challenge – and the proposed solution

Its investments hollowed out by the recession, PERA’s net assets available for benefits dropped from $43.1 billion at the end of 2007 to $30.8 billion at the end of 2008, a loss of more than 25 percent. The system pays about $3.1 billion in benefits a year and receives about $1.7 billion in contributions from covered employees and their employers. PERA overall is about 70 percent funded.

“Projections show that the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) cannot invest its way out of the situation created by the worst economic downturn since the 1930s,” according to an agency statement last week.

Source: Public Employees' Retirement Association
Source: Public Employees' Retirement Association

Agency leaders have tried to craft a solution that would share responsibility (translation – “pain”) between members, employers and retirees; provide equity among different age groups; be sustainable long term; preserve PERA as a defined-benefits plan; maintain the same benefits across all agency divisions, and minimize impact on short-term member behavior.

If you think school finance is the most complicated issue in state government, you haven’t delved into public employee pensions. Below is a simplified summary of what the rescue plan, dubbed “2+2+2 Plus” by PERA, would do.

• The good news for employees is that their direct contribution of 8 percent of salary would remain the same. It’s been at 8 percent since 1982. (There is bad news in that employers are being asked to increase their contributions from funds that might otherwise go to employee salaries – that’s explained below.)

• The bad news for retirees is that annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) would be capped at 2 percent until the system recovers its financial health. No COLAs would be paid until one year after retirement.

• The bad news for employers (school districts, in this case) is more complicated.

The overall employer contribution for PERA’s school division fluctuated between 12 percent of payroll and 12.5 percent from 1976 to 2008. But, under a previous legislative rescue plan, that rose to 12.95 percent this year, will be 13.85 percent next year and will go to 16.55 percent at the beginning of 2013.

The new rescue plan would extend increases to 2017, topping out at 20.55 percent. (The employer contribution has three parts, a base and two “equalization” contributions. One of those, known in PERA-speak as the SAED, is supposed to come from employer funds that otherwise would have gone to wage increases. The SAED is proposed to total 5 percent of payroll in 2017.)

• Under the plan, the COLA freeze and the increased employer contributions could be reduced once PERA reaches 110 percent funding but would be reimposed if funding dropped below 90 percent.

Those aren’t the only elements of the rescue plan. Other important features include:

  • Calculating an employee’s highest average salary on five years of pay, not the three currently used. This would have the effect of reducing pension payouts. (If approved, this would apply to non-vested employees – those with less than five years of service.)
  • Changing the rules for when an employee can retire with full benefits. The proposed rule for employees not yet vested would require 30 years of service and age 60 for full retirement, a so-called “rule of 90.” (People hired since 2007 are covered by a rule of 85, with a minimum retirement age of 55. Workers hired before 2007 are under a rule of 80 with a minimum age of 50.)
  • Tightening the rules for early retirement.
  • Eliminating the 50 percent match paid to non-vested (fewer than five years of service) employees who leave service and request a withdrawal of their PERA contributions.
  • Requiring contributions from retirees who return to work in a PERA covered job. (Such post-retirement work currently is limited to 110 days a year without affecting pension benefits. But, this change would have the effect of reducing a person’s pay from a post-retirement job.)

The proposed rescue plan would not apply to the new division for Denver Public Schools employees, who join PERA next Jan. 1.)

“We all want to save PERA, but …”

As Dan Daly, chief lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association notes, “Everybody understands we’ve got to do something to fix the system.”

But, the CEA and other groups already have concerns about the PERA plan.

“We would support the ‘2+2+2’ plan, but it’s the ‘Plus” that PERA has proposed that creates problems,” Daly said.

He’s concerned about the shift from three to five-year salary averaging and fears that some provisions proposed could create incentives for people to retire early. “You could sort of get a run-on-the-bank kind of thing.”

The CEA and other groups also support the idea of setting triggers for ending or easing the COLA freeze and employer contributions but aren’t sure 90 percent and 110 percent are the correct levels.

Daly noted that if PERA ever achieves a surplus, its funds could become a target for cash-hungry legislators, as has happened with Pinnacol Assurance, the state-affiliated workers’ compensation insurer.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “Assuming they (PERA) have done their homework, the concept they’ve come up with seems pretty sound.”

But, “We are worried about the employer contributions … that’s a concern for our members,” DeLay said. “I think we’re going to want to see the whole bill.”

Last year employers paid $430 million into the school division trust fund.

DeLay said school boards also are worried about possible “incentives for mass early retirements. … We don’t want a rush for the door.”

He also alluded to the fact that increased PERA contributions by districts could squeeze the amount of money available for salary increases. Higher contributions would “continue to exacerbate those kinds of conversations” between school boards and teacher unions.

Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, wrote this to his members in a recent newsletter: “While the coalition applauds all of the long hours and effort PERA has put into this process and agrees with the guiding principles that were used, we are concerned that the [PERA] board has gone beyond what it may need to accomplish.”

The coalition Caughey referred to is the Colorado Coalition for Retirement Security, a group of nine employee-oriented groups that is monitoring the issue. Education-related members include the American Federation of Teachers/Colorado, CASE and CASB.

A coalition statement said, “We are concerned that the [PERA] board is forgetting the additional framework we find ourselves working in and that is a down economy – we are facing budget cuts at the city and state and school level, employees are being furloughed and health care costs are sky rocketing.”

Let the games begin

Given the amounts of money and numbers of people involved, the PERA reform plan is shaping up as a major fight in the 2010 legislature.

Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, predicts a “knock down, drag out” battle that “will make for some interesting bedfellows.” (Local governments have a smaller stake in the battle, since some larger cities and many counties aren’t in PERA. Still, local governments will be watching closely, Mamet said, noting that the recession has hit cities and county revenues hard because of their reliance on sales taxes. School districts get their money from state aid and local property taxes.)

PERA is “obviously gearing up for some heavy-duty lobbying,” one observer noted. The agency has hired two lobbyists from the firm Colorado Communique, Collon Kennedy and Steve Adams, former president of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

The pension system also has hired Mary Alice Mandarich, a well-connected Democratic lobbyist who formerly was chief of staff for Senate Democrats and who worked on campaigns for former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, former Gov. Roy Romer and gubernatorial candidate Gail Schoettler.

Coalition members have their own lobbyists, and the well-staffed higher education lobby is sure to be involved in this issue as well.

While many interests will want legislators to tinker with parts of the plan, PERA is expected to argue that it’s a seamless whole and shouldn’t be cut up.

All that lobbying power will be focused on 100 legislators who will also be wrestling with massive budget cuts and, in many cases, calculating their re-election chances in November 2010.

PERA at a glance

The plan has four divisions with separate trust funds – school, state (including some higher ed employees), local government and judicial. DPS employees will be in a separate, fifth division. PERA-covered employees aren’t eligible for Social Security.

Overall, the system has 190,684 active members, 81,248 benefit recipients and 143,619 inactive members (people with eligibility but no longer working in PERA-covered jobs.)

While often thought of as the state pension system, PERA membership is dominated by employees of schools and colleges. Of PERA’s 190,684 active members, 118,547 are in the school division, which includes all districts in the state except Denver. Some 44,806 people receive benefits from the school division.

In 2008 employers paid more than $430 million into the school division trust fund while employees contributed about $304 million. There were about $1.4 billion in benefit payments. Because of the hit taken in PERA’s investments, in 2008 the net assets of the school division trust fund dropped from about $23 billion at the beginning of the year to about $16 billion at year’s end.

The state division includes employees of 28 colleges, universities and other education agencies, with 11,679 members (about 20 percent) accounted for just by the University of Colorado, Colorado State, Metro State and Front Range Community College. Some higher ed employees have access to other retirement plans.

For the overall PERA system, the average age at retirement was 58 with about 23 years of service, the average age of current retirees is 69 and the average monthly benefit is $2,772.

(Statistical information in this article was taken from PERA documents.)

Do your homework

(Note: You’ll need the latest version of Adobe Reader to open PDF documents from the PERA website.)

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”