one hurdle down

Charter school funding bill clears Senate Education Committee

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

A bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

Senate Bill 61 advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Supporters testified during a hearing last week that charter school 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. Currently, it’s up to districts whether to share revenues from local tax increases with charter schools, and practices vary.

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 from such tax measures approved by voters in the past and any that win approval in the future.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. It is expected to win Senate approval but its future is cloudier in the Democratic-controlled House. Similar legislative efforts have failed in the past.

“What this bill is really about is the funding disparities that exist,” Williams told the Senate committee Wednesday. “Charters are public schools. They are schools that all our children attend … I don’t think any kid should be systematically underfunded because of the type of school they attend.”

Democrats on the education committee raised a number of concerns. Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said that while she fully supports school choice, the state has not been adequately funding the public school system.

“We are in a financial bind as a state,” Todd said. “I don’t believe that it is our role to step in and tell the local school districts what they have to do and how they are going to spend their money. Where does that stop?”

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who represents portions of Jefferson County, said she struggled with the bill. She too cited the financial pressures on districts, which continue to face shortfalls under Colorado’s complicated school funding system.

“I really feel at this time I can’t tie the hands of my local district people with another mandate from the state,” she said.

Sen. Tim Neville echoed other Republicans in saying he supports the bill to bring equality to school funding. He also pointed out that mill levy overrides approved by voters this fall included no language excluding charter schools.

The committee vote was 4-3, with Republicans Hill, Neville, Bob Gardner and Kevin Priola voting yes, and Democrats Todd, Zenzinger and Mike Merrifield voting no.

Street talk

Memphis billboards urge city to start funding schools again

PHOTO: Stand for Children
A billboard campaign, paid for by Stand for Children, highlights an ongoing frustration among city, county and school leaders over education funding.

A week after Mayor Jim Strickland largely dismissed a new coalition’s call for a $10 million investment in education, the group is taking its message to Memphis billboards.

Fund Students First — comprised of elected officials, education advocates and public school leaders — posted two billboards Friday in high-trafficked streets in downtown and midtown Memphis. The campaign is being underwritten by Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group with offices in Memphis and Nashville.

One of the billboards reads:

The message plays off a controversial billboard campaign launched earlier this year by the local police union in an attempt to tie the city’s high murder rate to vacancies in the police department. Under Strickland’s proposed budget for next year, that department would receive a significant boost.

The other billboard says:

That message alludes to the mayor’s call for more job training for youth and young adults, even as the city has refused to set aside money that could be tapped by public schools.

The education campaign highlights frustration over years of tenuous funding for Memphis schools, but especially since the city school system voted to give up its charter in 2010 and merged with the suburban Shelby County Schools in 2013. County government is now the sole funding agent for consolidated Shelby County Schools, which last year prompted County Commissioner Terry Roland to refer to city government as a “deadbeat parent.”

Just before the consolidation, the city contributed $65 million annually to Memphis schools, which was about 5 percent of the district’s revenue. Next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools is $985 million.

This spring, education groups that often are at odds with each other formed the Fund Students First coalition, asking Strickland to put his money where his mouth is.

Elected in 2015, Strickland campaigned to make Memphis “brilliant at the basics” — a slogan that coalition members say should include public education.

“That should be a ‘basic’ of what we should have to do to move our city forward,” said Cardell Orrin, Stand for Children’s Memphis director.

Presenting his $680 million spending plan this week to City Council, Strickland mentioned youth first. He said his budget would restore Friday hours to libraries and expand teen programming, as well as maintain a summer job program for 1,400 students and add a literacy component for summer camps.

“First, and most importantly, the future of our city is only as strong as our young people,” Strickland said. “…Yet we know the No. 1 job of city government is to provide for public safety.”

The coalition has called for a direct city investment of at least $10 million to help pay for career and technical training for in-demand jobs, as well as after-school programs and social supports for potential dropouts. The group wants at least half of the money to be funneled through public schools and the rest through community programs.

PHOTO: Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland presents his proposed $680 million budget to City Council on April 25, 2017.

Strickland has said the city faces “serious and well-documented budget challenges” due to the gradual elimination of the state’s Hall income tax and required increases in the city’s pension fund. He added that Memphis taxpayers decided in a 2011 referendum that they did not want to be “double-taxed” by putting in money to education through both city and county coffers.

But Tomeka Hart, a former city schools board member and one of the architects of the merger, questioned Strickland’s framing.

“(Double-taxation) had nothing to do with the reason behind the merger,” she said. “They could fund the school system if they want to.”

Hart said the referendum was about protecting school funding from impending state legislation that would have allowed the county school system to wall off its funding in a “special school district,” similar to the current municipal school districts that ring the city. She said the double-taxation argument came up when City Council members wanted to cut school funding in 2008.

Strickland served on City Council at that time and was one of the original proponents of a $66 million cut to city funding for legacy Memphis City Schools. That cut sparked a lawsuit and a settlement that has the city still paying $1.3 million annually to Shelby County Schools. Last year, school and county officials chided the city government for paying nothing more.

The coalition has proposed that the city invest $10 million in a fund that would be managed by a nonprofit organization. That would prevent the city from being locked into giving that amount every year as mandated under a state law known as “maintenance of effort.”

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year.