money money money

Superintendents draw line on school funding

A letter signed by 171 of the state’s 178 school superintendents calls for the legislature to more than double the proposed increase in next year’s state funding for K-12 education.

The superintendents are asking lawmakers to add $275 million to the $241 million that the proposed budget allocates for the 2014-15 school year.

The letter, sent Tuesday to Gov. John Hickenlooper and all 100 legislators, specifically asks that lawmakers “buy down” the negative factor by that amount. The negative factor is the device lawmakers use to reduce school funding from what otherwise would have been required by state funding formulas.

Districts, administrators and teacher groups have been pushing hard during this legislative session to reduce the negative factor and to oppose funding earmarked for specific education programs.

The superintendents’ letter represents a ramping up of that effort.

Hickenlooper’s proposed $5.7 billion K-12 budget for 2014-15 basically makes no dent in the negative factor, now estimated at $1 billion. And a large number of bills proposing earmarked spending already have been introduced in the legislative.

The superintendents’ letter doesn’t reference earmarked spending, but it does request a meeting with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders. The letter also suggests that an unspecified amount of the $275 million be devoted to increasing support for at-risk students.

Discussions among superintendents and other education groups have stepped up in the last couple of weeks. Superintendents met with a group of lawmakers late last week, and the negative factor was the top issue discussed during a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives last Friday.

“We understand that you can’t get a billion back in one year,” Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger told that group. Messinger said  that the growing pressure for $275 million means that “both parties are paying attention to this conversation…I don’t think it’s impossible” to persuade the legislature. Messinger is one of the leaders of the superintendents’ group.

Lobbyists and others connected to the effort also say they feel lawmakers are paying more attention to the issue than they were earlier in the session, when legislative leaders reportedly were cool to the idea of buying down the negative factor.

But advocates still face challenges in making their case.

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was among lawmakers who met with superintendents last week. “We’re certainly going to look at doing something [about the negative factor], but certainly nothing anywhere near the amount the superintendents are proposing,” he told Chalkbeat Colorado.

Attempts to reduce the negative factor also conflict with Hickenlooper administration budgetary goals, including increasing the state reserves, paying back some cash funds the legislature “borrowed” from in prior years and maintaining a healthy balance in the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used to supplement basic school support and also fund special programs.

And Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a leading figure on education policy, also has designs on any extra education money that may be lying around, working with Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. He’s been working on a bill that would increase funding for kindergarten and English language learners and well as provide money for changing the state’s enrollment counting method, school district financial reporting and implementation of education reform laws. (See this story for more details.)

It’s likely the school funding debate won’t play out until late March, after quarterly state revenue forecasts are issued and when the main state budget and annual school funding bills are being finalized.

Rising frustration about the negative factor also reporting has revived discussions among some superintendents and lawyers about a possible lawsuit challenging use of the device. A possible legal theory behind a suit is that the factor violates Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by inflation and enrollment every year.

Those involved in those discussions are reluctant to talk about them, as those pushing for reduction of the negative factor are primarily interested right now in reaching some agreement with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders.

Read the superintendents’ letter here.

money matters

Why money for Memphis schools is about to be based on students, not adults

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Under a budget model switch, Shelby County Schools would focus more on the types of students in their buildings and less on the number of staff per school.

Educators generally agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t work. Now school leaders in Memphis are saying it doesn’t work when distributing money to schools, either.

Beginning this July, Tennessee’s largest district will pilot student-based budgeting at up to eight schools, with the expectation of expanding to the entire district in three years. The goal is to distribute money more equitably.

Under the new method, each student brings to their school a certain dollar amount, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability, is an English language learner, or comes from a low-income family.

That’s a big change from traditional budgeting, which distributes money primarily based on how much it costs to pay the salaries of adults who work in a building. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

The new approach would give principals more say in how they allocate money within their building. The system also appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. And recently, student-based budgeting got a boost from President Donald Trump, whose proposed budget includes $1 billion in incentives for school districts with poor students that make the switch.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools have been working for more than a year with Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based consulting organization, to lay the groundwork for the transition. The method already is being used in districts in Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Boston and Houston.

David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, said traditional budgeting models cater to the most politically savvy principals who find funds for academic programs and interventions in system loopholes. Student-based budgeting changes the dynamic to empower principals, making them more like CEOs than strict academicians. It also means principals will have to learn more about the complexities of budgeting.

“It works because you make it more flexible for schools and teams for how they see fit within parameters the district provides,” Rosenberg said.

During the next few months, the Memphis district will analyze how money is being allocated to its schools — which ones don’t have enough funds and which ones have too much under the new formula. The change will create winners and losers, and it’s the losers that concern some school board members.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, finance chief of Shelby County Schools

The board is generally supportive of student-based budgeting and is scheduled next week to vote on a resolution endorsing it. But board members also want the transition to be as painless as possible in a district that they say is underfunded by the state.

Finance chief Lin Johnson reassured board members at a work session this week that the district can mitigate losses for schools with less money. Options include tapping a separate pool of money to lessen the shock and giving some schools an extra year for the transition.

“The goal is not to fund all schools equally, but equitably (and) to make sure the funding we have is meeting the unique needs of students,” he said. “We need to work with schools to provide training and examples, to give schools the support they need to maximize the resources that they have.”

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which fully switched to student-based budgeting 2015, about 60 percent of schools received more money than the previous year. The rest received the same amount.

In other districts, the model has had the effect of shaking up central office structures, increasing the need for fiscal oversight, and stretching principal capacity.

Below is a video from Nashville’s school district to explain how student-based budgeting was rolled out there.

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.