breaking news

Live-blogging the City Council education budget hearing

I’m at the City Council and will give updates as they happen.

4:09 p.m. Hearing is over, on a sad, mixed with let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves, note.

4:02 p.m. Another thing being cut is general maintenance. There will also be 71 skilled trades workers who are based centrally and then deployed to help with repairs — plumbers, carpenters, for instance — who will lose their jobs. And Grimm said earlier that the budgets given to custodians based in schools will be reduced by about $4 million this year.

What will that mean? Likely it will mean that some assistants to custodians will lose their jobs, Grimm said. And there’s another thing: the floors. “I always say we have the best floors in New York City; our floors sparkle,” she said. “Maybe they won’t sparkle quite as much.”

3:54 p.m. For such a big-deal kind of hearing, where the DOE is giving more details on planned cuts than ever yet, the room is shockingly empty. Guess that’s what you get for being a watchdog late on a Friday afternoon.

3:50 p.m. The DOE has already alerted principals to the cuts it expects to make during the middle of this year and then next year. But of course, those cuts aren’t real until the City Council approves them. Nevertheless, this hearing keeps sounding like it’s a done deal: Grimm was just explaining that today is the deadline for principals to submit a plan on how they’ll cut their budgets this year; then, we were told, the DOE will review those plans. Finally, Susan Olds, the department’s director of budgeting, said the process will be “complete” in just a few weeks, when the review process is through.

And what about council approval? Grimm cut in with a chuckle: “Of course, the process will not be totally complete until the council votes on the package.”

3:37 p.m. John Liu, of Queens, also asked a question about the federal No Child Left Behind law. Echoing the criticism of Democrats that the law has been an “unfunded mandate,” he asked how much un-funding is happening in New York – in other words, how much isn’t New York getting. “We need to know the number so that we know how much to ask the new president for,” Liu said.

3:27 p.m. Just want to clarify, because even City Council members keep asking: No layoffs at the schools! Teachers at schools stay at the schools, and so do guidance counselors and art teachers and parent coordinators. Only administrative personnel — bureaucrats — are being fired.

3:14 p.m. John Liu of Queens is interrogating Kathleen Grimm on the DOE’s decision not to centralize kindergarten admissions, after all. He asked Grimm how much money was “wasted” moving toward that goal before it was abandoned. “I would guess it’s a least a couple of million dollars, maybe more than that,” he said. Grimm said she would have to look into it.

3:06 p.m. A council member summarized the new “empowerment” budgeting that allows school to pick a support organization to be work with, paying a fee for each organization depending on their preference. The organizations then provide help with professional development and budgeting. The member said he likes that new setup, but wonders whether the empowerment idea could be expanded, so that schools could opt out of paying for support services altogether. “Why not really do it?” he asked, adding that he visited several schools recently that said they would rather spend the money on something else, like a new art teacher. Grimm said that is something the Department of Education is considering.

2:51 p.m. Council Member Lew Fidler said that a neighbor of his replaced all the light bulbs in hise house with energy-efficient ones — and reduced his energy bill 15%. He asked whether the Department of Education could do that in schools. Grimm said the energy budget is $202 million annually for schools and said she’d look into energy-efficient light bulbs.

2:40 p.m. Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, stopped in and sparred with Grimm over the report she commissioned from the Independent Budget Office, asking how much accountability initiatives cost. She complained that her office requested the report in February, and it only came this month. She said disagreements with the Department of Education caused the long delay. “You all were arguing with the IBO to such an extent that we felt, I felt, from hearing from them that the things you were arguing about just weren’t making a whole lot of sense, and that you really didn’t want to show us how much money is being spent on accountability,” Gotbaum said.

2:20 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor in charge of budgets, is testifying. She broke down the 475 personnel cuts the department has said are coming. From the central offices at Tweed Courthouse, 284 jobs will be cut. She said “every single office” is experiencing a reduction. Not all 284 cuts have been made yet, but she read off a list of sample jobs that have already been identified. I heard her list the Office of Communications three times, meaning at least three jobs cut from there. Also the Office of Portfolio Development, which manages new small schools and charter schools; a few technology office jobs, and at least one from the Office of Family Engagement.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.