Last Capitol roundup

School funding package wrapped up with a bow on final day

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The Colorado House worked through its calendar on the 2014 session's final day.

The 2014-15 school finance package finished where it started, in the House, on the final day of the 2014 legislative session Wednesday.

House members accepted the conference committee report on House Bill 14-1298, the School Finance Act, and re-passed it 44-21, ending for this year a debate that began in the wake of Amendment 66’s defeat last November.

“It’s been quite a journey, starting before the session began and ending on the last day,” said sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon and chair of the House Education Committee.

“The process has been totally amazing,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and another architect of the finance package. “On both sides of the aisle there is something for us to love and something for us to hate.”

Improving state revenues, along with the realization that no new funds would be coming from Amendment 66, sharply focused the education community this session on the goal of increasing K-12 support as much as possible. Their top objective was buying down part of the state’s $1 billion school funding shortfall, a product of the last recession.

That drive got tangled in debates over funding for preschool and kindergarten, English language learners, literacy programs, and even whether to spend $3 million for a website containing school and district spending information.

The final disagreement was over how much money to drain from the State Education Fund to pay for this year’s spending spree. That was resolved by a House-Senate conference committee whose plan was approved by the Senate Tuesday night and the House on Wednesday morning. That plan changed both parts of HB14-1298 and other spending bills. (Get background on the deal in this story.)

Lawmakers are boasting that spending package increases K-12 funding by more than $400 million, although an exact total is elusive because it depends on which bills are included.

Reporters packed Senate President Morgan Carroll's office for a final briefing on the legislature's last day.
PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Reporters packed Senate President Morgan Carroll’s office for a final briefing on the legislature’s last day.

The bottom line is this. The package increases Total Program Funding, the combination of state and local spending that pays for basic school operations, to $5.91 billion in 2014-15 from $5.76 billion this year. That means statewide average per pupil spending of about $7,020 next year compared to $6,839 in the current school year. Most of the increase is provided by the automatic escalator in the constitution. But lawmakers also reduced the shortfall (known as the negative factor) by $110 million.

Other major elements of the multi-bill package add funding to existing special programs, including:

  • $27 million for English language learner programs
  • $18 million for funding of the READ Act, which provides special services to K-3 students behind in reading
  • $17 million to provide 5,000 additional slots for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students
  • Up to $11.5 million for charter school facilities costs
  • $3 million for the Colorado Counselor Corps
  • $3 million to pay for the financial transparency website
  • $2 million for boards of cooperative education services to assist member districts in implementing recent education reforms
  • $1.6 million for gifted and talented programs

Smooth path for the last education bills

A handful of other education bills were on the calendar for the 2014 session’s 120th and final day. They were measures that required one chamber to accept amendments added by the other. Here’s the rundown:

Board executive sessions – The House accepted Senate amendments and re-passed Senate Bill 14-182, 37-28. The bill requires school boards to keep minutes of executive sessions. Those minutes must include the topics discussed and the length of time spent on each. The proposal sparked repeated disagreements over lawyer-client confidentiality, local control of schools, and the conduct of the Douglas and Jefferson county school boards. A different, earlier version of the bill died because of lack of support in the Senate.

School closures – House Bill 14-1381 was re-passed 38-27. It sets requirements for certain procedures districts will have to follow when closing schools for low academic performance.

Online education – The House vote 45-20 for House Bill 14-1382, whose main provision launches a task force to study how mult-district online schools are overseen.

College scholarships – House Bill 14-1384, passed 62-3 by the House, creates a new college scholarship and student advising program paid for with $33 million in previously-unused funds, earned when the state sold its college loan portfolio. Students won’t see any money until 2016.

Teacher pensions – Senate Bill 14-214 will commission three financial studies of the Public Employees Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers and many other civil servants. The outcome of those studies could set the stage for important PERA debates in the 2016 legislative session. The final Senate vote was 35-0.

Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

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

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

Budget backlash

New York stands to lose $433 million in education funding under Trump budget, state says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx

President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would “eviscerate” education programs by cutting more than $433 million in New York funds, according to state officials.

The budget would slash teacher preparation, after-school programs, and college aid for low-income students, they said.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia used her meeting last month with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to push back on potential cuts to education spending. On Tuesday afternoon, she released a joint statement with New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denouncing the cuts.

“Despite the outcry from education leaders, President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” the statement read. “The severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.”

Here’s the full breakdown of the state’s preliminary analysis: