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.

Funding & Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools may ask taxpayers for more money. A three-year deficit and raises for teachers are driving the decision.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools leaders may ask the public for more funding.

With Indianapolis Public Schools slowly burning through its savings, district leaders may soon ask taxpayers for more money.

For the third year in a row, the district expects to operate at a deficit, following years of declines in state funding and growing spending on teacher pay. Now, to balance the budget, some district leaders say IPS may need to ask taxpayers for more money through a referendum.

It will be more than a year before the district can put a referendum to increase property taxes on the ballot, said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. But with state funding stagnant or declining, Ferebee said that he believes the district will “absolutely” need to have a referendum for more funding to pay teachers at the current rate and potentially increase pay in the future.

In recent years Indiana schools have become largely reliant on state funding for operating expenses, with local money primarily paying for transportation and facilities. But districts with pinched budgets often appeal directly to residents to increase property taxes and send more money to schools. Of the 11 school districts in Marion County, eight have asked taxpayers for more funding to pay operating expenses such as teacher salaries and six were successful. The most recent district to make an appeal was Washington Township, which passed a referendum last fall.

Next year, IPS expects to spend about $22 million more on operating expenses then it receives in state, local and federal dollars. The district can make up for that gap in the short-term because it has about $57 million in savings, and it is adding millions of dollars to its coffers each year from the sale of unused buildings. But neither strategy is sustainable in the long term.

“We know we have deficits,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “Ultimately, much like a lot of the other local districts and state districts, an operating referendum is very much a consideration for our district.”

Before district leaders appeal to voters for more cash, however, they are aiming to cut some of the costs that are weighing down the shrinking district — which has lost thousands of students over the last decade. The biggest drain are the district’s underused schools. The district has nearly three times as many seats as there are high school students to fill them, which dramatically pushes up costs at some schools.

(Read: Empty hallways, higher costs force Indianapolis Public Schools to consider closing high schools)

Last summer, IPS leaders announced plans to close some of the district’s high schools. Ferebee said last week that the district could close schools by 2018-2019.

Board member Kelly Bentley said that closing some high schools is one way that the district can show taxpayers that it is managing its finances responsibly — and win more support for a referendum.

“I think the district has been and continues to be really good stewards of the money that we have,” she said. “We need to continue to do that so that the taxpayers feel comfortable that we are doing what we can with what we have, and there really is no other alternative.”

IPS leaders are also looking to prove their fiscal responsibility in other ways: Since Ferebee took the helm three years ago, the district has touted a focus on making sure funding goes directly to schools. Last year, consultants for the district found that spending on management and leadership had fallen to $684 per student in 2015-2016 from $876 in 2012-2013.

But IPS leadership has also spent big on some areas. The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay outside consultants to help plan a new approach to school budgeting. And last fall, the district approved the first teacher raise in years, which increased the minimum salary for teachers to $40,000 — at a price tag of about $1.7 million per year, according to an IPS spokesperson.

If the district wants to raise teacher and principal salaries again, the district will need to have a referendum, Bentley said.

“With concentrated poverty like we have in IPS, I just think it’s a huge challenge for principals and teachers,” she said. “We just need to be able to pay them competitively. I just hope that the public will see that.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.