bonds unbound

Jobs bill clears way for $1.4 billion in school construction bonds

Here’s one way the jobs bill headed for the president’s desk today will affect New York City: it unfreezes more than $1 billion in school construction bonds the city needs to fund its capital plan.

The bonds were effectively frozen because of a significant flaw in last year’s federal stimulus bill, which set aside $22 billion over two years for school districts to sell interest-free bonds to fund school construction. As Pro Publica reported late last year, many banks refused to buy the bonds because they were funded by tax credits that investors found worthless.

The jobs bill the Senate passed today aims to solve that problem by using a direct subsidy, rather than a tax credit, to pay banks for the bonds. (The House passed a similar bill last month and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.)

New York City, like many school districts around the country, had delayed issuing any bonds because of this problem, according to the mayor’s preliminary budget plan released in January. In the mayor’s plan, the Office of Management and Budget noted that it expected Congress to revise the school construction bond program and predicted that when it did, the city would successfully be able to issue all $1.4 billion in bonds.

The city needs all of the funds provided by the school construction bonds, plus an additional $300 million from another federal bond program, in order to carry out all of the construction proposed in its five-year capital plan. The bonds fund a total of $1.7 billion of the city’s $11.3 billion capital plan, which was approved last year.

There’s no deadline for the city to issue the $699 million in bonds set aside for New York City in 2009 and the $664 million allocated for 2010, a spokeswoman for the federal Treasury Department said today, so the city’s delay in issuing the bonds won’t hurt its school construction plans.

Comptroller John Liu, who last month urged New York’s Congressional delegation to swap the direct subsidy for the tax credits in the bond program, today called the Senate’s bill “a tremendous victory for our schoolkids.”

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news