money money money

Advocacy groups to Colorado elected officials: Step up and fund our schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater raises her hand for assistance while students work on their iPads.

A coalition of education advocacy groups has fired the first shot in what’s shaping up to be a brutal battle at the statehouse next year over school funding.

Led by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit group that advocates for more resources for schools, the coalition is calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper, the legislature and the State Board of Education to create a three-year plan “restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.”

“We’re calling on everyone to step it up,” said Lisa Weil, Great Education Colorado’s executive director. “It’s just not sustainable to think our current trajectory of school funding will produce graduates ready for the workforce to support the economy we all want and expect.”

Recent budget forecasts have painted a gloomy outlook for the state’s finances, which could mean cuts for schools across the state.

The governor’s office will submit its proposed budget to lawmakers Nov. 1, giving school districts their first look at what to expect for the 2017-18 school year.

If the governor’s budget calls for across-the-board cuts, it would be the first time since 2012 that state spending for schools has not increased. Last year was the first year that the state’s average funding per student exceeded pre-Great Recession levels. But advocates and school leaders continue to argue funding should be much higher — by about a billion dollars.

School funding has always been a touchy subject in Colorado, a low-tax state in which lawmakers have little say over funding priorities and tax levels. Several constitutional amendments do that for them.

“This issue is much bigger than just the legislature and the governor,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “If we could actually vote on something in the legislature that would take care of this, I think we’d have that opportunity. But we’re very limited.”

Weil said she hopes lawmakers and the governor, who is entering his last two years in office, get creative. But her organization is stopping short of specific recommendations — for now.

“What we know,” she said, “is that it’s going to require every legislator on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to make this their own personal mission to figure out how to do right by the students in our schools today.”

Read the coalition’s letter here:

October 27, 2016

An Open Letter to State Leaders:

As representatives of statewide and community organizations, we know what our children and communities require to thrive:

  • Vibrant public schools with qualified, well-prepared and culturally competent teachers for every student regardless of where they live or how they learn;
  • Learning opportunities that meet the needs and curiosity of each and every child;
  • Individual attention, support and mental health services that ensure that no child’s future is defined by deprivations, challenges, or trauma.

We also know that every year these student needs go unfulfilled is a year that our students cannot replace or redo. The urgency of now could not be greater.

We appreciate that the coming legislative year poses significant challenges for you.  Despite having one of the strongest economies in the nation, the Colorado constitution requires that you hold back funds from the fundamental services that help our communities thrive – vibrant public schools, public health and safety, affordable college, safe roads – in order to fund small, individual taxpayer rebates.

Now is the time for us to consider the building blocks necessary to ensure prosperity in the future.  Colorado’s rapid economic and population growth requires investment in the Coloradans whom we hope will lead, serve and work in our communities in the decades to come.

Education is the bedrock of our strength as a state. It is in that context that the undersigned organizations call on you to apply the following minimum standards to your consideration of budget and education policy this year. We ask that you:

  1. Place Colorado on a three-year path to restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.
  2. Reject policies that exacerbate or increase the already existing inequities between districts. This includes rejecting unfunded mandates.
  3. Reject policies that will pit children against each other.  Address the inequities in learning opportunities to Colorado’s children through significant additional resources.
  4. Ensure that the all-too-scarce public dollars allocated to K-12 education are only used for public schools.

We do not accept – and hope that you will not accept – the notion that adequate and equitable support for school funding is something that is simply beyond your authority or Colorado’s ability.  Education serves as the foundation of individual opportunity, community vitality and economic prosperity. We ask for the children of Colorado and for the future of our great state that our elected leaders be bold, visionary and united in addressing this funding crisis.

Thank you for keeping the future of Colorado in your minds as you propose and consider the state budget.

Sincerely,

American Federation of Teachers-Colorado
The Arc of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties
Colorado Council of Churches
Colorado Education Association
Coloradans for Educational Excellence
Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization
Colorado Parent Teacher Association
Colorado School Finance Project
Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition
Great Education Colorado
NAACP CO MT WY State-Area Conference
Padres Unidos
Project VOYCE
Support Jeffco Kids
Urban League of Metropolitan Denver

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.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”