From the Statehouse

Finance bill caught in House logjam

The House couldn’t find time on a chaotic Friday night to pass the bill proposing a massive overhaul of Colorado’s school funding system.

Colorado House floor
Sen. Mike Johnston (reddish tie) kills time on the House floor with aide Will Gohl (left), daughter Ava Johnston and aide Damion LeeNatali (far right).

The bill came to the floor shortly after 3 p.m. But progress got derailed by a big blowup over a surprise amendment concerning what to do with new revenue that would flow to the state after a tax increase is approved by voters but before the money is needed to implement Senate Bill 13-213.

If voters approve a tax increase this fall, additional revenue would start flowing in 2014, but SB 13-213’s new costs wouldn’t kick in until July 1, 2015.

Realizing that problem at the 11th hour, supporters had an amendment drafted, and bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, formally proposed it after the bill came up on the House floor. The change would have put the extra 18 months of revenue into school construction and broadband upgrades, among other uses.

The amendment was a surprise to everyone, from minority Republicans to education lobbyists. After a few minutes of heated rhetoric on the floor and frantic texting in the lobby. Hamner withdraw the amendment and went off to huddle with Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, aides and other lawmakers.

A compromise was reached that proposes putting up to 40 percent of the revenue into a new education reserve fund, up to 40 percent into the Building Excellent Schools Today construction fund and smaller amounts into an educator effectiveness fund and an education technology fund.

But by then, SB 13-213 had lost its place in the big queue of bills on the House calendar. Members wrangled for hours over controversial energy conservation and marijuana bills. Hamner learned after 11 p.m. that SB 13-213 wouldn’t be brought back up.

The bill (and the amendment) now are on the calendar for Monday, the same day the House may hold preliminary debate on Senate Bill 13-260, the funding bill for the 2013-14 school year.

Once SB 13-213 clears the House it will return to the Senate for consideration of a long list of House amendments. However, there isn’t expected to be conflict over those changes, since the House changes were vetted ahead of time by the bill’s author, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.

While final legislative approval is nearing, that won’t be the last word for the bill. The bill requires a roughly $1 billion tax increase, which would have to be approved by voters.

Some of the bill’s supporters want a public vote this November, although it’s not certain that will happen. Coincidentally, the titles of 20 proposed ballot measures related to SB 13-213 were approved Friday by a state review board.

Kathleen Gebhardt, lead lawyer in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, appeared before the review board Friday morning with appeals to several of the proposed measures. The review panel, known formally as the Title Board, granted her appeals only in relation to one small wording change. Gebhardt told EdNews her intervention in the matter “wasn’t a hostile maneuver by any means” but an attempt to clarify how the complicated funding mechanisms actually would work in some of the proposals submitted by the business group Colorado Forum.

Gebhardt, who represents three private citizens on the issue, said she doesn’t know if they will take the matter to the Colorado Supreme Court, as is allowed on the wording of ballot measures.

Long road for big bill

SB 13-213 started with a study process that began two years ago and involved hundreds of meetings and private conversations, most of them involving Johnston and his cosponsor, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. But the bill’s progress through the legislature has been torturous.

Minority Republicans have consistently opposed the bill, saying it doesn’t contain enough education “reform” but really meaning that they oppose raising taxes.

Lobbying from a variety of education interest groups has forced a variety of significant changes in the bill. After all that work, few interest groups – ranging from charter schools to school districts to business groups – remain whole-hearted in their support, or in their opposition.

Inside a much-amended bill

Weighing in at 189 pages (at last count), SB 13-213 is as intricately balanced as a big Swiss clock, and just as complicated. (One part of the bill includes a quadratic equation.)

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

During prior House floor debate, prime sponsor Hamner admitted that maybe the only people who understand it are school district chief financial officers. One education lobbyist, watching from the gallery, grimly quipped that even the CFOs may not know all the bill’s intricacies.

That said, here’s an overview of the bill’s main features, as the bill stood following House amendments.

When it starts: The law would go into effect for the 2015-16 school year, but only if voters approve an income tax increase in November 2013. The new funding system wouldn’t go into effect until voters approve the necessary tax increase and would expire entirely if no election is held – or is successful – by November 2017.

What it costs: The full annual cost of the bill, including spending that would have to be approved by future legislature, is about $1.1 billion. The increase in basic K-12 operating costs, known as total program funding, is just under $900 million a year. Current spending is about $5.2 billion in state and district funds.

How enrollment is counted: The basis of any school funding system is enrollment. The new system would measure enrollment based on a method called average daily membership, which counts actual district enrollment throughout the school year. The current system is based on attendance counted during a narrow time window around Oct. 1 each year.

Early childhood education: A key feature of the bill is funding for full-day kindergarten for all students who want it. (Kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Colorado.) The bill also would fund half-day preschool for all three-, four- and five-year olds who are eligible for the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves poor children and those who have other defined risk factors. More than 46,000 students are enrolled in full-day kindergarten, and another 20,500 attend half day. Current preschool enrollment is about 20,000; it’s estimated that more than 14,000 at-risk four-year-olds currently don’t participate.

Spanish instructor -  BigStock Photo
Spanish instructor – <a href="">BigStock Photo</a>

At-risk students and English language learners: The bill puts significant additional resources into districts with the highest percentages of at-risk students and English language learners.

• All districts would receive 120 percent of the statewide per-pupil base for each at-risk and ELL student.

• Districts whose enrollment of those students exceeds the statewide average (which stands at about 42 percent) would receive funding for those students of up to 140 percent of the statewide average.

• Students who are both at-risk and ELL will receive double funding for up to five years.

• The definition of at-risk is expanded to include students eligible for reduced-price lunch (about 60,000 students now). That’s on top of the approximately 289,000 students eligible for free lunch.

• A group of 15 districts would receive “supplemental” at-risk funding (about $274 per pupil in most cases). Those districts include Jefferson County, St. Vrain, Mesa Valley, Thompson, Brighton, Widefield and Pueblo 70, plus some smaller districts. Those districts felt they were slighted by the bill’s original provisions, and this amendment was added in the House. Another group of more than 80 districts are in a similar situation but wouldn’t receive additional funding.

Other adjustments for individual districts: The current system adjusts many districts’ funding based on size. Under the new system only districts with fewer than 4,023 students will receive additional funding for size. Another current “factor” provides extra money to many districts based on the cost of living for staff. That’s eliminated by SB 13-213. Some larger, primarily suburban districts with lower concentrations of poor students felt they were unfairly treated in the original version of the bill. In response to pressure, an amendment created “floor” funding for 31 districts equal to 95 of statewide average per-pupil funding. Additional, more technical safeguards also were built in for those districts.

Additional per-pupil funding: Under part of the bill called Teaching and Leadership Investment, every district would receive an additional $441 per pupil. This money is generally intended to help districts with the costs of implementing new content standards and tests, the new teacher evaluation system and other recently state-imposed reforms. The proposed amount was originally $600 a student, but that figure was cut to shift money to pay for other amendments to the bill. The amount gradually would rise to $600 depending on increases in revenue from the new taxes. The amount could go down if revenues from the new taxes decline.

Students in class at GALS wearing GALS T-shirts, which is part of the charter school's dress code.
Students in class at GALS wearing GALS T-shirts, which is part of the charter school’s dress code.

Charter funding: This was a sore point as the bill moved through the legislature, with charters unsuccessfully lobbying for a requirement that local tax overrides be shared pro-rata with charters, something the school districts opposed. As it stands, the bill includes an override-sharing negotiations process between districts and charters. Charters that don’t like the way that turned out could switch their oversight to the state Charter School institute. The bill contains $18 million to partially compensate charters for facilities costs and creates a tiered system for allocating that money. The measure also would increase at-risk and ELL funding for charters and provide other increases for institute-supervised schools.

“Backpack” funding: Another hotly contested issue was how much autonomy principals would have in spending of at-risk and ELL funding provided by the state. Some education reform groups favor wide school-level autonomy, sometimes know as “backpack funding” or “money following the student.” The Colorado Association of School Boards opposed the bill’s original provisions as infringing on the constitutional powers of school boards. A compromise amendment adopted in the House gives district superintendents and boards oversight over principals’ spending plans.

Special education: The bill includes $80 million additional funding for what’s called Tier B special education support and would allocate additional funding as revenues from the next taxes increase over time. Tier B is for severely disabled students.

Innovation grant fund: The bill also proposes a $100 million fund that could be distributed to districts that apply for various education reforms. The bill originally envisioned most of that money being used for extended school days and years. But amendments added during the legislative debates have added other permissible uses, such as student retention. The grants would be administered by a new board appointed by the governor.

District tax increases: The bill would raise current ceilings on the amount of local tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, that districts can seek from voters. It also would permit new kinds of earmarked local tax increases, including for early childhood education, technology purchases and building maintenance and staff cost of living.

The bill also includes a calculation intended to determine which districts are raising less in local taxes than their property wealth would indicate. But amendments ensure that those districts wouldn’t ever be penalized and includes a “hold harmless” provision affecting 25 districts.

SB 13-213 also contains a provision for state matching funds to districts with low property values.

Sens. Mike Johnston and Rollie Heath
Sens. Mike Johnston and Rollie Heath confer during earlier SB 13-213 committee debate.

Accountability: Johnston likes to point out that the bill would provide an unprecedented amount of “transparency” about school and district spending. The bill requires periodic reports on both adequacy – whether schools are receiving enough money – and return on investment – whether the increased K-12 spending in yielding improved student achievement.

Miscellaneous provisions: The bill also includes additional, if relatively small, amounts of additional funding for teacher career development, gifted and talented students and for facilities schools, which serve students in detention and residential treatment.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”