Starting on the wrong foot

School funding bill off to rocky start after complaints of “ambush”

Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner had to defend their school finance bill against complaints that it was rushed.

Everybody likes the fact that the proposed 2016-17 school finance bill doesn’t increase the K-12 funding shortfall, but the measure’s rushed introduction Monday ruffled a lot of feathers.

The measure would allocate $6.4 billion for basic school operations in 2016-17, up from $6.2 billion this school year. The bill would hold the K-12 funding shortfall, often called the negative factor, at $831 million, the same level as this year. See the chart at the bottom of this article for the impact on individual districts.

The bill is seen as modest good news for school districts, who’ve faced tight funding since 2009, when declines in state revenues forced substantial cuts. The state constitution requires base K-12 funding – about 75 percent of total support – to increase every year by inflation and enrollment. The bill does that.

Holding the shortfall to $831 million is considered a victory because projections made before the session convened put that figure as high as $905 million.

The bill would set average per-pupil funding at $7,424, up from this year’s $7,312.

The bill’s rushed introduction left members of the House Education Committee scrambling to understand it when they convened only about 90 minutes after House Bill 16-1442 was formally introduced.

“To rush this most important bill through the process” was unfair to members and to the state’s school districts, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

Sen. Owen Hill, whose Senate Education Committee will hear the bill later, was more blunt. “I was shocked. … This ambush was unacceptable,” arguing that House members were ambushed because they faced with voting on a bill they didn’t had time to review.

Wilson and a couple of other GOP members harped on the issue throughout the 80-minute hearing, to the irritation of chair Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner said the measure came up when it did because it needs to move in tandem with the main state budget bill, also introduced Monday. The budget and companion measures, including school finance, were finished over the weekend, so Monday was the first opportunity to introduce them. The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

She said the school measure is “a bill we should all be cheering about.”

Her cosponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, also tried to downplay the complaints. “I don’t think there are many major issues we can’t deal with despite the short notice.” He noted that the JBC had to trim other parts of the budget like transportation and Medicaid in order to set school funding at the proposed levels.

Democrats control the House, so a few irritated Republicans aren’t likely to change the bill much. The GOP-majority Senate may be more troublesome for the bill.

Hill said rushed House consideration of the bill short-changed public review and testimony. He indicated Senate Education will take a longer look at the bill and likely will consider amendments to expand parent choice. Hill was mad enough about the situation that he sent out an email blast criticizing what the House did.

The House panel spent a lot of time on two secondary elements of the bill.

The first of those would change current state law that sets minimum funding for very small districts at 50 students, even if they have a smaller number of actual students. The bill proposes a system under which the floor would be 30 students for the very smallest districts.

The change could be a big blow to the 19-student Agate district on the eastern plains. Hamner proposed an amendment that would delay the cut for Agate by a year, but the committee voted that down.

Another section of the bill would modestly increase funding for a handful of districts that have between 4,000 and 5,000 students. Some of the affected districts are in Hamner and Rankin’s House districts. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said that “benefits the sponsors, which we’ll discuss on the floor.”

The committee passed the finance bill 9-2. It goes Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee, along with the main budget, House Bill 16-1405. That hearing should be a formality, but finance bill debate on the floor later this week could be lively.

Learn more about the bill is this analysis by legislative staff.

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: