splitting the pie

Charter school funding debate takes center stage at Senate Education Committee

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013.

Parents, activists and school board members from across Colorado spent hours Thursday arguing for and against a bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools.

Members of Senate Education Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 61, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Republican, and Angela Williams, a Democrat.

But the Republican-controlled committee could vote on the legislation as soon as next week.

Supporters of the bill testified that their students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year. Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing.

“Without question, their needs are great,” said Terry Cory Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters for the state.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides..

Under the bill, charters would get a share of such tax increases —both those approved by voters in the past and any that win approval on future ballots.

“This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and communities,” said Joyce Brooks, education chair of the Denver NAACP.

Co-sponsor Hill had a family emergency and left the meeting before testimony ended, prompting the delay on the vote. The bill is expected to win Senate approval but its future is uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House.

School districts increasingly have turned to mill levy overrides as the state has failed to close a school funding shortfall. School districts are required to consult charter schools before asking taxpayers for more money, but they aren’t required to fund them and charters in most districts have historically only seen a marginal amount of any new revenue.

According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, only 11 of the state’s 178 school districts equally share their local tax increases. Such increases must be used for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring that are spelled out in the ballot requests.

Under the bill, school districts across Colorado would need to reallocate a total of about $95 million to charter schools. Lawmakers also would need to find up to $13 million for charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute, according to a legislative report.

Such a drastic reallocation would wreak havoc on school district’s budgets, school board members said at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a one-size-fits-all that favors a few at the expense of many,” said Linda Van Matre, a board member for the Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs.

But charter school parents told the committee that their children deserved an equal footing.

“I voted for my child in 1999 to get my tax dollars,” said Sonya Camarco, who also sits on her child’s Monument charter school board. “And to this day, they don’t.”

getting to know you

Colorado Sen. Nancy Todd is making up for all the times she was quiet in school

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Throughout the legislative session, Chalkbeat is asking members of the House and Senate education committees to share a little bit about themselves — and their legislative priorities. In this installment, meet Sen. Nancy Todd.

Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, is a former social studies teacher who has spent her retirement — if you want to call it that — at the Capitol helping shape education policy.

Since 2005, Todd has played a role supporting — and opposing — some of the state’s most ambitious education policies as a member of both the state House and Senate.

One of her earlier bills created a stipend for teachers who earned National Board certification, a rigorous and widely respected training program for educators. More recently, Todd has been focused on reducing standardized testing and curbing the state’s teacher shortage.

Todd was a vocal opponent of Senate Bill 191, the state’s controversial 2010 teacher evaluation law. She has regularly supported reversing provisions of the law, including a failed attempt this year to create more flexibility in how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

Get to know a little more about Todd here:

What is your favorite memory from school?

PHOTO: Nancy Todd
State Sen. Todd in the first grade.

I think one of my favorite memories was my fifth grade teacher. He was my first male teacher, and he inspired me to be creative and think outside the box. Being the daughter of a superintendent, I always appreciated those teachers who treated me as an individual, not their “boss’s daughter.”

Were you the teacher’s pet or class clown?
Neither. I was actually pretty quiet and followed the rules. Guess I’m making up for it now.

What was your favorite subject and why?
I loved American Government because I had a great teacher who was unconventional and allowed different views and lively discussions. He taught me a lot about respecting others’ opinions and how different leaders of our country were all instrumental in doing good for our citizens, using different approaches.

If you could give yourself one high school superlative it would be:
I was considered “Miss Priss” because I didn’t wear jeans like some of my friends did. I was kidded for being “prim and proper.”

What clubs or sports did you participate in high school?
Pep club, journalism, Quill & Scroll, girls sports

What would your perfect school look like?
An ideal school is where there is a high level of innovation, creativity, opportunity for teachers and students to interact with authentic and respectful relationships. Where learning is based on relevant learning environment and a balance of technology, live role models teachers who are highly qualified and LOVE working with students.

What are you legislative priorities?
Resolve ninth-grade testing question; expand counseling; reasonable school finance proposal.

Caught in the crosshairs

Colorado Senate Republicans say they don’t want to cut funding to school to pay for roads

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem.

School funding will not suffer at the expense of fixing the state’s troubled roads, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said Monday.

Holbert’s comments came after Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran last week suggested that could happen if lawmakers use money from existing revenue streams to meet the state’s infrastructure needs, this session’s No. 1 legislative priority.

Leaders in both parties have been working toward a way to find billions of dollars for the state’s roads. Republicans have not ruled out asking voters for more money, but they believe a portion should come the state’s budget.

If the Republicans get their way it could have a big impact on the bigger school funding picture. If that tax money is used for roads, the state likely will not have the means to close a longstanding gap in what schools should be getting under the state’s funding formula.

Holbert on Monday said Republicans believe there should be enough new revenue for schools and roads.

The state is required to increase funding to schools every year to keep up with population changes and inflation. Lawmakers have some discretion on money that exceeds that formula, which goes toward helping small districts and those with large at-risk populations.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, in a press conference with reporters Monday, said he didn’t find Duran’s comments surprising. But he stood by the GOP’s position that any compromise in transportation funding must come from existing funding streams.

“If it’s going to be a priority,” he said. “Let’s act like it’s a priority.”

Public schools use about 38 cents for every tax dollar in the portion of the state’s budget lawmakers have control over — by far the largest line item.

Funding to schools has increased during the last several years, but lawmakers have fallen short in closing a $813 million shortfall for education created during the Great Recession.

Some school leaders and observers fear the state might not be able to keep funding at its current level going forward because of a decrease in local property tax revenue. The state may have to find at least another $136 million of new revenue to keep schools funded at the current level.

“I’m losing sleep already,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who is co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

The legislature’s budget committee is expected to start addressing how much schools will receive next year in early March.