year in review

Colorado’s school funding debate raged on in 2016. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson Junior-Senior High School Principal Michael James.

School funding is the perennial school policy debate in Colorado.

During elections and legislative sessions, year in and year out, the state grapples with decisions over how much money schools need and what they actually get.

This year, lawmakers staved off growing the state’s education funding shortfall, known as the negative factor. It’s currently sitting at about $831 million — meaning that’s how much more money schools are owed but aren’t given because the state doesn’t have the revenue.

But those same lawmakers failed to find a compromise on charter school funding. Despite bipartisan support in the state Senate, the General Assembly failed to pass a law that would have required local school districts to share local tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, with their charter schools. Now, one of the bill’s sponsors has pledged to bring the issue up again.

After the session, advocates for more school funding went to work on a ballot question that would have sent more money to public schools. But their hearts were broken when the Colorado Priorities campaign — which also would have funded roads, health care and other services — came to a sudden halt.

In response, a coalition led by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, sent a letter to lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, asking they come up with a funding solution in January.

The nonprofit also began gathering members of the education community and others to discuss a potential ballot initiative in 2018.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state asked voters for a record number of local tax increases to fund programs like teacher training and to build new schools. About two-thirds of those requests passed, including those in Denver, Aurora and Mapleton. Voters in Jefferson County, however, rejected their district’s request. That meant upgrades at one high school that serves mostly Latino students is being put on pause — again.

Some in the education community worry that local school districts relying on mill overrides to make up for the state’s funding shortfall is causing greater inequities across school districts. Some districts, like those in Greeley and Pueblo, have never passed a local tax increase.

One other potential driver in funding inequity Chalkbeat looked at in 2016: school fundraisers. Fundraising at individual schools has always been uneven, depending on the socioeconomic status of each school’s population. But observers believe it’s gotten worse in recent years as cuts have forced more expenses onto the shoulders of Colorado parents.

Next year’s funding debate is already underway. Hickenlooper’s proposed budget called for a slight increase in school funding, but it’s not nearly enough to keep up with what’s required by the state law and the Constitution. That means the school funding shortfall will likely increase.

But whether schools actually get more money next year was in doubt after a December forecast projected the state would need to make more cuts than Hickenlooper’s original budget anticipated.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”