budget debate

Under the House budget plan, suburban districts would get more money while some urban districts would get less

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Suburban schools, English-learners and virtual schools would fare well under the Indiana House’s 2017 budget plan, while Indianapolis Public Schools and other urban districts would see drops in state support.

In the Republican-crafted two-year budget draft, presented to the House Ways and Means Committee today, Indiana schools are projected to get an extra $273 million to support student learning, a 2.8 percent increase overall. Basic per-student funding that all districts get would also increase to $5,323 in 2019, up 4.6 percent from the $5,088 they received in 2017.

Much like in 2015, almost every district in Marion County would see a slight increase in state funding, with the largest bumps going to Beech Grove and Perry Townships. Each would get nearly 8 percent more in tuition support — the state’s contribution that funds each student’s education. Both districts’ boosts can be attributed in part to growing student populations.

Only one district in the county is expected to lose funding. IPS would see a big decline in state aid under the proposed budget, down by nearly 5 percent. That’s partially because enrollment is projected to decline over the next two years. But the largest drop would come from a reduction in the “complexity index” — extra dollars districts receive to educate poor students. That amount would fall by $9.4 million by 2019.

During her campaign, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick called for adjustments to the complexity index, but House lawmakers kept the calculation as it was. It will continue to rely on how many families qualify for food stamps, foster care and welfare programs.

Although IPS and other urban districts — such as those in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond — lose either tuition support, per-student funding or both, many township and suburban districts saw increases.

In order to cover those increases in a year when state revenues are less than expected, Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, said the state did have to make cuts.

The House plan axes money for teacher performance bonuses. Last year, Indiana paid $40 million for the bonuses, which varied widely from district to district. High-performing teachers from wealthier districts got as much as a few thousand dollars, while those in poorer urban districts, such as Wayne Township, received less than $50.

Brown said the priority was finding a way to increase funding for all students.

“We made the decision, especially in this tight first year, to see what we could do to boost the foundation for every child in Indiana,” Brown said.

That move is likely to see pushback from the Senate. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he’d like to see the bonuses continue, albeit in a fairer way.

The House plan would also increase the budget for English-learners by 50 percent, going to $300 per student in 2018 and $350 per student in 2019, up from $200 per student in 2017.

Virtual charter schools, previously funded at just 90 percent of what other schools receive from the state, are bumped up to 100 percent under this plan. The proposal comes as Indiana’s online schools have struggled to find success — each one received an F from the state in 2016.

However, Brown argued they should be treated the same as other schools because “every child is equal.”

The overall $273 million boost to schools would also include an 11.3 percent increase in funding to Indiana’s taxpayer-funded voucher program, where families can use state dollars for private school tuition. Contributions are expected to move to $163 million in 2019, up from $146 million in 2017 due to higher anticipated participation.

The House plan sets aside less than what Gov. Eric Holcomb and McCormick have endorsed, but Brown said that the House’s plan — unlike Holcomb’s — is based on what was actually spent in 2017, not what lawmakers originally appropriated. State school districts enrolled fewer students than anticipated, so less money was spent.

The plan still has to pass out of Ways and Means before it heads to the full House, likely sometime next week.

The budget also includes:

  • $20 million per year for the state’s preschool program
  • $1.5 million per year for developing teacher “career pathways.”
  • $1 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $2 million over two years for schools to use toward counseling and student support services, such as ones provided through groups like Communities In Schools.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs
  • Kids with the most severe special needs would get a 4 percent increase in per-student funding over the next two years.
  • $12.5 million per year (up from $9.5 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.

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.”

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”