Budget squeeze

Budget panel offers a bit of extra cash for schools

Colorado schools would receive an additional $18 per student under mid-year budget adjustments approved Wednesday by the Joint Budget Committee.

Statewide average funding per pupil would be set at $7,312, compared to the $7,294 in the 2015-16 school funding law passed last spring.

The recommendation basically gives districts well less than a fifth of a loaf in terms of what they wanted from the budget adjustments.

The committee’s plan effectively mirrors a proposal by the Hickenlooper administration that also contained an $18 per student boost. The JBC’s recommendation, which requires approval by the full legislature, gets to the same place through a different mechanism.

Mid-year budget tweaks often are routine procedures to adjust school funding to account for actual enrollment and updated local revenues. Projections of those two things, not hard numbers, are used when the annual school funding law is passed every spring.

But this year’s K-12 adjustment has drawn more attention than usual because of a non-binding pledge included in the 2015-16 funding law. In simple terms, that pledge said that if the local tax revenues reported in December were larger than last spring’s estimates, the state wouldn’t reduce its share of school support. Talk last spring was that the increase would be $70 million.

Instead, the JBC’s recommendation is that the state reduce its share of 2015-16 school funding by $133 million, the actual amount of additional local revenue that came in.

Districts would get a little something from the committee’s plan. Because both overall enrollment and the number of at-risk students are lower than originally projected, the legislature could cut school funding by $24 million. But the committee agreed to let schools keep that money, which averages out to the $18 increase per student. Districts that experienced student declines would receive more per student but would lose money overall because they have fewer pupils.

Overall K-12 funding this year would remain the same as originally proposed, about $6.2 billion.

“The total program amount is spread among fewer kids than we thought, so the per-pupil amount goes up,” explained JBC staff analyst Craig Harper.

The committee’s action also affects the negative factor, the amount by which actual school funding falls short of what full support would have been under the state finance formula. The legislature uses the negative factor as a device to balance the overall state budget.

The 2015-16 shortfall was $855 million. The committee’s adjustments would reduce it to $831 million. Members also voted to introduce a bill that would hold the 2016-17 negative factor at the same level.

The Hickenlooper administration has calculated that the shortfall would need to increase by as much as $50 million to balance next year’s budget.

Final decisions on the 2016-17 budget won’t be made until after new state revenue forecasts are issued in March.

Advocates of improved school funding were disappointed by not necessarily surprised by the committee decision.

“We’re disappointed with this action, but we’re appreciative that the $24 million is retained,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger, a leading voice among superintendents on finance issues.

He noted last spring’s pledge by legislators but said, “They didn’t know what this year would look like. … I like to think that if the budget were not in such a difficult place they would have kept that pledge.”

Lisa Weil, executive director of the advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said, “The JBC just decided to use local property taxes raised specifically for schools to balance the state budget, even after stating their intent in last year’s School Finance Act to do the opposite. It’s a sad day when not even these local school dollars are used to help repay the $5 billion debt Colorado owes our students from the past seven years of cuts.”

Committee chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, also recalled the pledge during committee discussion. She noted that the budget situation differs from what lawmakers anticipated last spring and said the $24 million is at least a small nod to the pledge.

Get into the weeds in the briefing paper Harper prepared on the issue.

House Education pulls trigger on parent leave bill

It took two tries, but the House Education Committee on Wednesday voted 6-5 to advance a bill that would resurrect a state law requiring some business to give employees unpaid time off for some school activities.

A parliamentary wrangle over amendments delayed a vote at a meeting last Monday. Things went more smoothly on Wednesday, but panel members spent nearly 45 minutes debating the measure. There’s a partisan divide on the bill, and Democrats voted yes and Republicans no on the motion to send House Bill 16-1002 to the House floor.

The bill would revive a 2009 law that gives employees of companies with more than 50 workers up to 18 hours of unpaid time off a year to attend specified school events, like teacher-parent conferences. That law also gave employers various grounds on which to deny leave.

The law expired in September after an effort to continue it failed during the 2015 session. This year’s bill would reinstate the 2009 provisions, without an expiration clause.

House Democrats are pushing the bill as part of a policy agenda to help families. Republicans oppose it, arguing that it’s not necessary. The main business lobbying group, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, is neutral on the measure. If the bill passes the House it’s expected to die in the GOP-controlled Senate – just like last year.

Get details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.

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: