ask the legislature

Education officials present multimillion-dollar wish list, including funding for English learners and new assessments

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York state Board of Regents.

The New York State Education Department submitted a budgetary wish list for the 2017 legislative session on Monday, including a sizable investment in English learners and support for new graduation options.

The largest chunk of funding would go toward developing new native-language exams geared toward students learning English and another would create project-based assessments, which substitute a series of tasks for traditional multiple-choice tests.

If approved, the funding would go directly to the State Education Department, as opposed to school districts, unlike the board’s larger education funding proposal. Since the state has no formal power over the legislature, these requests are not guaranteed. But the state Assembly recently held a hearing about boosting achievement for English Language Learners, an indication its members are serious about the issue.

The request, presented for a vote on Monday, would designate $12.4 million for “native language assessments,” designed to test Spanish proficiency rather than English skills for students whose first language is Spanish.

The department also requested $8 million to develop project-based assessment, which officials said would help them revamp graduation requirements. Already, students can substitute their final Regents exam for a pathway in career and technical education or the arts, and some students with disabilities can earn a diploma without passing all Regents exams.

Project-based assessments could provide another option for students who struggle to pass Regents exams, such as English learners or students with disabilities. 

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has indicated that her agency wanted to experiment with project-based assessments, but worried it would not be able to fund the initiative.

State officials also want $1 million to bring back world language Regents exams in Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese. Those exams could help students fulfill a graduation requirement if reestablished. The Regents’ full proposal also includes a grab bag of other requests, including funding to check for testing irregularities and to expand fee vouchers for the state’s teaching exam.

The Regents have discussed the department’s budget priorities at previous meetings, but voted in committee Monday to approve them. The board must officially adopt them on Tuesday.

Zeroing in

Vote approaches on closing two Memphis schools, while cost of Hopson’s plan grows

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Memphis school leaders are moving forward with the first phase of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to reshape the district by closing, building and consolidating schools.

Board members for Shelby County Schools are scheduled Tuesday night to discuss Hopson’s proposal to shutter Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools, two of seven targeted in the latest recommended closures for the bloated district. A final vote is scheduled for Jan. 31.

In the meantime, the cost has grown for Hopson’s plan, which also calls for building new schools. And district leaders want some assurance that Shelby County commissioners are on board to approve the financing.

The estimated price tag is now $49 million to tear down five aging schools and consolidate students into two new ones — up from about $30 million when Hopson rolled out his plan in November. In a school system grappling with upkeep of aging buildings while its student population declines, that amount would consume about 65 percent of the district’s yearly ask for capital improvements.

Alcy Elementary School, which would absorb Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools, would cost about $25 million to replace. Goodlett Elementary School, which would absorb Knight Road Elementary, would cost about $24 million. Initially, Hopson had estimated $15 million each.

The third consolidation project, combining Lucy and Northaven into a new Woodstock K-12 school, won’t go before the board until next year.

Hopson hasn’t yet set a date to take his request to the commission but said last week that “all feedback I’ve gotten has been positive.” That aligns with commissioners’ initial reaction to Hopson’s plan last fall.

The school board’s scheduled vote next week will be the second and final one on closing Dunbar and Carnes.

Both elementary schools were built in the 1950s, both are costly to maintain, and both rank low on state tests. Carnes has seen a steady decline in enrollment, while Dunbar’s student population has been steady.

Closing the schools would save the district $1.2 million, according to staff reports on Dunbar and Carnes.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Budget cuts

Jeffco will propose plan to close schools to save money

Jeffco Public Schools is proposing school closures as part of a plan to save more than $20 million after the November defeat of the district’s two tax measures.

District staff is still finalizing the plan, which is to be presented Thursday to the school board, district spokeswoman Diana Wilson said. The district will wait until the meeting to release the names of schools being considered for closure, she said.

Wilson also emphasized that Thursday’s plan will be a draft proposal and requires school board approval.

The 86,000-student district has started 2017-18 budget discussions and expects a drop in student enrollment, which would mean less money from the state.

Wilson said district officials were initially looking to save $15 million to pay for raises for some teachers, since the board identified improving teacher compensation as a priority. Amy Weber, the district’s chief human resources officer, has told the board that for some teachers in the district, Jeffco’s pay is not competitive with neighboring districts, causing some teachers to leave.

But Wilson told Chalkbeat on Monday that plans changed after the November election.

“It’s now about what buildings can we afford to keep open,” Wilson said. “It’s a very different scenario.”

The district’s plan would save between $20 million and $25 million, she said.

Officials will also present the board with a plan for “cabinet recommendations” of other cuts that would be phased in over time to save $20.4 million.

As one way to gather input on budget priorities from the community, the district created a website where the people can try their hand at choosing their own combination of budget allocations working with a $6 million budget.

“Although the amount is hypothetical, it offers you an opportunity to weigh in on priorities,” the website states.

The site will be available through Feb. 10. The district will also hold telephone town hall meetings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 7.