Funding & Finance

Tuition, debt dominate higher ed budget hearing

Key legislators signaled concern about tuition levels during a budget hearing Thursday, even though state colleges have promised to keep 2014-15 increases below 6 percent.

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Institutional debt was the other focus of the daylong hearing before the Joint Budget Committee, an annual marathon at which college leaders get to pitch their institutions to the people who write the annual state budget.

The upcoming 2014-15 budget year looks to be a good one for the state higher education system, at least in comparison to the recent past.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also heads the Department of Higher Education, touted the Hickenlooper administration’s proposed $100 million increase in higher education spending for 2014-15.

“This a request for a serious reinvestment in higher education,” he said, calling it the largest “in anyone’s memory” but adding the increase is “dwarfed by the cuts of the last decade.”

The administration’s proposal presumes that college and university governing boards won’t raise 2014-15 tuition by more than 6 percent. A 2010 tuition flexibility law gave institutions the power to raise tuition by up to 9 percent a year for five years. Larger increases are allowed if approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. That law expires in two years. Tuition increases have averaged about 10 percent a year over the last few years.

Governing boards “have all agreed that they will use this money to mitigate their tuition increases,” Garcia said. “Most of them said it won’t be that high.” Individual institutions promised as much in their written responses to committee questions.

But that didn’t necessarily reassure lawmakers.

Impact of 6% tuition hike
  • $257 at community colleges
  • $345 at Metro
  • $430 at Adams, CSU-Pueblo, Fort Lewis, Mesa, Western, UNC
  • $559 at CSU-Fort Collins
  • $621 at CU-Boulder

Source: JBC

“I gain no comfort in this 6 percent deal” because larger increases are possible in future years, said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “To me it’s a bait and switch. … We need to increase the state’s commitment to higher education … and not rely on things like a handshake agreement to limit tuition increases for one year, which by the way happens to be an election year.” (Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to see reelection next year.)

Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, JBC vice chair, was worried about the tuition flexibility law, wondering if it should be repealed early.

Garcia responded, “This year I would not encourage this body to change the existing statute.” He suggested that policymakers take the next year to study and discuss the issue, including whether the legislature wants to get back into the complex and politically tricky business of setting tuition, as it used to do.

“It’s time to revisit that conversation, either now … or next year,” Steadman said.

College debt worries aired

The other serious issue raised at Thursday’s hearing was the debt load being carried by some state colleges.

Chart shows where colleges rate on evaluation of financial health. (Click to see larger version.)
Chart shows where colleges rate on evaluation of financial health. (Click to see larger version.)

During a briefing last week, JBC staff analyst Amanda Bickel laid out an report that showed six out of 10 state institutions were “in relatively weak financial health” as of 2011-12, primarily because of high debt loads. She cited Adams State University in Alamosa and Western State Colorado University as particularly troubled.

As state construction funds dried up in recent years, colleges increasingly turned to issuing bonds, some to be repaid by student fees, to renovate and construct buildings. “Both Western and Adams have spent aggressively on cash-funded new construction in recent years, Bickel wrote.

On a 0-10 scale, Bickel listed Adams and Western as below 0. She recommended that policy makers continue to monitor the financial health of state colleges, keep a closer eye on bonds that are backed by the state and discuss whether small colleges should be taken over by larger systems.

Thursday’s hearing provided the first opportunity for college leaders and JBC members to discuss the issue face-to-face.

Interim President Brad Baca told lawmakers, “We do recognize that Western faces some challenges. … We are highly leveraged. … We can’t deny that.”

But he said that Western’s trustees have increased university reserves and that rising enrollment and student fee income also will help. “I feel very confident [that] we’re positioned to not be in any danger of missing any payment.”

“The actions we’ve taken over the last two years are working,” said trustee chair Todd Wheeler.

Trustee Gregg Rippy, a former legislator, also warned against combining Western with a larger system. Creating independent boards several years ago was “one of the best things” the legislature’s done for higher education, he said.

JBC member Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, was sympathetic but said, “We need a little bit more help from you, and a firm action plan would be great.”

Adams leaders were even more bullish about their plans to increase enrollment and stabilize finances.

“The rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” said President David Svaldi. “Small rural institutions struggle.”

Noting that Adams had a decade of enrollment declines before creation of a strategic plan several years ago, Svaldi said campus upgrades were necessary, and “The risk of doing nothing was greater than the risk of borrowing in a time of historic low interest rates.”

Metro’s Jordan raises ticklish issue

While Hickenlooper’s proposed budget is seen as a welcome boost for higher education, it would distribute money to colleges based on an existing formula that’s the product of past political compromises among the state’s often-fractious colleges and universities.

Chart shows estimated per-student state support under the 2014-14 higher ed budget plan. (Click to view larger version.)
Chart shows estimated per-student state support under the 2014-14 higher ed budget plan. (Click to view larger version.)

Among other things, the formula doesn’t fully compensate colleges for enrollment growth, long a sore point for President Steve Jordan of Metro State University, which has been one of the faster growing campuses.

Jordan raised that issue Thursday, arguing that the formula needs to be fixed before a planned college performance funding system kicks in later this decade. (See this EdNews story for background on that plan.)

That needs to be done “so there will be a level playing field,” Jordan said.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, agreed with Jordan, saying Metro and the community colleges “are at the bottom of the barrel” in per-student support from the state.

Gerou was less sympathetic, telling Jordan that other colleges also have financial needs and “the world does not revolve just around Denver. … You may feel like you’re suffering right now, but I don’t think you’d trade places with Western State or that you’d trade places with Adams State.”

Jordan merely replied that he believes there needs to be similar per-student funding among similar institutions.

Average per-student support from the state would be $4,976 under Hickenlooper’s budget plan, but Metro and the community colleges would receive only about $3,000 per student.

Attempting to change the college allocation formula during the 2014 legislative session would be politically difficult, but JBC chair Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, asked Jordan for more information on the issue. She asked him for “a specific plan” on how the formula could be improved. “That information would be very helpful.” Duran’s District 5 includes the Metro campus.

Thursday’s hearing was just the second step in a long process leading to legislative approval of a 2014-15 state budget in late April. Among other steps, updated state revenue forecasts that will be issued next week and in March will affect the budget debate, both for higher education and other state programs.

budget debate

Under the House budget plan, suburban districts would get more money while some urban districts would get less

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Suburban schools, English-learners and virtual schools would fare well under the Indiana House’s 2017 budget plan, while Indianapolis Public Schools and other urban districts would see drops in state support.

In the Republican-crafted two-year budget draft, presented to the House Ways and Means Committee today, Indiana schools are projected to get an extra $273 million to support student learning, a 2.8 percent increase overall. Basic per-student funding that all districts get would also increase to $5,323 in 2019, up 4.6 percent from the $5,088 they received in 2017.

Much like in 2015, almost every district in Marion County would see a slight increase in state funding, with the largest bumps going to Beech Grove and Perry Townships. Each would get nearly 8 percent more in tuition support — the state’s contribution that funds each student’s education. Both districts’ boosts can be attributed in part to growing student populations.

Only one district in the county is expected to lose funding. IPS would see a big decline in state aid under the proposed budget, down by nearly 5 percent. That’s partially because enrollment is projected to decline over the next two years. But the largest drop would come from a reduction in the “complexity index” — extra dollars districts receive to educate poor students. That amount would fall by $9.4 million by 2019.

During her campaign, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick called for adjustments to the complexity index, but House lawmakers kept the calculation as it was. It will continue to rely on how many families qualify for food stamps, foster care and welfare programs.

Although IPS and other urban districts — such as those in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond — lose either tuition support, per-student funding or both, many township and suburban districts saw increases.

In order to cover those increases in a year when state revenues are less than expected, Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, said the state did have to make cuts.

The House plan axes money for teacher performance bonuses. Last year, Indiana paid $40 million for the bonuses, which varied widely from district to district. High-performing teachers from wealthier districts got as much as a few thousand dollars, while those in poorer urban districts, such as Wayne Township, received less than $50.

Brown said the priority was finding a way to increase funding for all students.

“We made the decision, especially in this tight first year, to see what we could do to boost the foundation for every child in Indiana,” Brown said.

That move is likely to see pushback from the Senate. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he’d like to see the bonuses continue, albeit in a fairer way.

The House plan would also increase the budget for English-learners by 50 percent, going to $300 per student in 2018 and $350 per student in 2019, up from $200 per student in 2017.

Virtual charter schools, previously funded at just 90 percent of what other schools receive from the state, are bumped up to 100 percent under this plan. The proposal comes as Indiana’s online schools have struggled to find success — each one received an F from the state in 2016.

However, Brown argued they should be treated the same as other schools because “every child is equal.”

The overall $273 million boost to schools would also include an 11.3 percent increase in funding to Indiana’s taxpayer-funded voucher program, where families can use state dollars for private school tuition. Contributions are expected to move to $163 million in 2019, up from $146 million in 2017 due to higher anticipated participation.

The House plan sets aside less than what Gov. Eric Holcomb and McCormick have endorsed, but Brown said that the House’s plan — unlike Holcomb’s — is based on what was actually spent in 2017, not what lawmakers originally appropriated. State school districts enrolled fewer students than anticipated, so less money was spent.

The plan still has to pass out of Ways and Means before it heads to the full House, likely sometime next week.

The budget also includes:

  • $20 million per year for the state’s preschool program
  • $1.5 million per year for developing teacher “career pathways.”
  • $1 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $2 million over two years for schools to use toward counseling and student support services, such as ones provided through groups like Communities In Schools.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs
  • Kids with the most severe special needs would get a 4 percent increase in per-student funding over the next two years.
  • $12.5 million per year (up from $9.5 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.

one hurdle down

Charter school funding bill clears Senate Education Committee

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

A bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

Senate Bill 61 advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Supporters testified during a hearing last week that charter school students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year.

Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing. Currently, it’s up to districts whether to share revenues from local tax increases with charter schools, and practices vary.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides. Under the bill, charters would get a share from such tax measures approved by voters in the past and any that win approval in the future.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. It is expected to win Senate approval but its future is cloudier in the Democratic-controlled House. Similar legislative efforts have failed in the past.

“What this bill is really about is the funding disparities that exist,” Williams told the Senate committee Wednesday. “Charters are public schools. They are schools that all our children attend … I don’t think any kid should be systematically underfunded because of the type of school they attend.”

Democrats on the education committee raised a number of concerns. Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said that while she fully supports school choice, the state has not been adequately funding the public school system.

“We are in a financial bind as a state,” Todd said. “I don’t believe that it is our role to step in and tell the local school districts what they have to do and how they are going to spend their money. Where does that stop?”

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who represents portions of Jefferson County, said she struggled with the bill. She too cited the financial pressures on districts, which continue to face shortfalls under Colorado’s complicated school funding system.

“I really feel at this time I can’t tie the hands of my local district people with another mandate from the state,” she said.

Sen. Tim Neville echoed other Republicans in saying he supports the bill to bring equality to school funding. He also pointed out that mill levy overrides approved by voters this fall included no language excluding charter schools.

The committee vote was 4-3, with Republicans Hill, Neville, Bob Gardner and Kevin Priola voting yes, and Democrats Todd, Zenzinger and Mike Merrifield voting no.