We want our money

School funding supporters take stand on eve of legislative session

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger called for improved K-12 funding during a news conference. Chart at right shows Colorado average per-pupil funding compared to several national averages.

Education advocates and superintendents Monday set a marker for what they want out of the 2016 legislative session – no cuts in state school aid for this school year and no increase in the funding shortfall for 2016-17.

“We want to make sure we hold our own this legislative session,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger.

Superintendents, business leaders and others made their pitch at a Capitol news conference packed with parents, teachers, students and others who’d been organized to attend by several education interest groups.

Total school funding — $6.2 billion this year — comes from a combination of state and local tax money. If there’s more local revenue than projected, the state is able to reduce its share. If enrollment is lower than what was forecast when the school finance law was passed in the spring, the legislature also can reduce total spending in the middle of the school year.

Both enrollment and local revenue have changed from original projections. Lower enrollment means a potential saving of $24 million to the state, while higher local revenues mean the state could reduce its share of school spending by $135 million, according to legislative staff economists.

Districts want to keep that total of $159 million, or at least a good chunk of it.

The school finance law passed by the 2015 session contained a non-binding statement that lawmakers would consider not cutting state share if local revenues were higher than expected.

“We did get a pledge from the legislature, so we’re asking for reconsideration,” Messinger said.

The superintendents’ other priority is to prevent an increase in the negative factor, the amount that K-12 support falls short of projected full funding. The negative factor is $855 million this school year, and Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed raising it to $905 million in 2016-17.

“What we’re asking is that the hole not get any deeper,” Messinger said.

Also speaking at the news conference were Bob Deibel, former chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce; Shannon Bird, Westminster City Council member, and Superintendent Kirk Banghart of the Moffat 2 school district in the San Luis Valley.

Said Bird: “I’ve been told there’s nothing that could be done” about school funding. “Well, I don’t believe this. Our legislators are smart people who are elected to solve tough problems.”

Several lawmakers have expressed sympathy for the superintendents’ position. But the legislature faces tough financial choices this session, and final budget decisions won’t be made until April.

The state’s superintendents first took a high-profile stand on school funding during the 2014 session. Since then lawmakers have made some trims in the negative factor, but fiscal realities have prevented the superintendents from getting all they’ve proposed.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here: