Who Is In Charge

Highed ed flex bill dies

Senate Bill 09-295, the higher education financial flexibility bill, died in the Colorado Senate Wednesday on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. What killed it was a House provision that would have given community and four-year colleges the ability to seek local property and sales taxes.

The proposal started out in a much more ambitious form that would have given colleges control over their tuition rates and state financial aid for their students, perhaps setting the higher education system on a path toward more expensive tuition for all students but additional financial aid for needy students.

The bill was introduced late in the session, and lawmakers weren’t ready for such a major policy change on such short notice. Gov. Bill Ritter also opposed it. Those sections were quickly dropped from the measure, leaving it only with provisions to give colleges some exemptions from state financial rules, streamline the approval process for construction projects colleges fund with their own money and greater flexibility for enrolling foreign students, who pay higher, non-resident tuition.

The bill got interesting again on Monday, when the House added to SB 09-295 the language of another higher ed financial bill that had been killed in a Senate committee last Friday.

That measure, House Bill 09-1362, was intended to allow community and four-year colleges to partner with local governments and seek voter approval for sales or property taxes that would help support the colleges. (The bill was killed in the Senate because the bill threatened to get way too complicated because other sectors of higher ed were trying to horn in on the action.)

When SB 09-295 came back up in the Senate late Wednesday afternoon, it quickly become clear that House amendment had opposition.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and a former CU regent, moved that the Senate stick with its original version.

“This will not include any of the research institutions,” complained Schwartz, a reliable defender of CU. (Colorado higher education is in such dire financial straits that colleges scrap for every dollar.)

The Senate voted 18-17 to reject House amendments, effectively killing the bill because there was no time on the session’s last day for a conference committee. Schwartz and four other Democrats joined all Republicans to successfully pass her motion.

Senate President Pro Tempore Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood and the bill’s sponsor, tried to change some minds for reconsideration but was unsuccessful.

The House had given 63-2 approval to SB 09-295 Wednesday morning.

The Senate earlier had agreed to House amendments and unanimously repassed Senate Bill 09-290, which contains the same changes in the college construction approval process as SB 09-295 did. Members of the Capital Development Committee intended SB 09-290 as a backup in case SB 09-295 failed, and it turned out they were wise to do that.

Senate Bill 09-226, the food allergy bill, also crossed the legislative finish line on Wednesday. The Senate voted 25-10 for the amended version. The House approved the bill Tuesday.

The original bill would have required the State Board of Education and local school boards to adopt policies on caring for students with food allergies, training of school staff and provision of anti-reaction devices in schools. The bill was much amended, and as it ended up primarily applies existing state law regarding asthmatic children to students with food allergies. As amended, the bill will have the SBE issue guidelines.

Some of the last day’s longest debate in both houses was focused on House Bill 09-1366, which would change state law on taxation of capital gains and raise an estimated $7.1 million this fiscal year and $15.8 million next year.

The House passed it 37-28 and the Senate 21-14.

While the bill doesn’t directly affect education now, it could be the forerunner of similar bills to come in 2010 that might provide revenue for schools and colleges.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, touts this as the first in a series of tax bills the legislature could pass without voter ratification, in keeping with a recent state supreme court decision. Romer estimates there are up to $3 billion in tax breaks that could be ended in order to raise state revenues.

Also Wednesday, a common version of Senate Bill 09-285 finally was passed. This is the measure that would include career and technical education programs in the new statewide dual enrollment bill created by House Bill 09-1319, which passed on Tuesday.

In other action

Even though everyone was anxious to go home, the Senate spent 20 minutes debating Senate Joint Resolution 09-050, which would have required every legislator to attend a certain number of Joint Budget Committee meetings.

There’s been a lot of grousing this year – at least by Republicans – about the JBC. Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, thinks the rest of the legislature just doesn’t understand what the committee does and that it would be helpful if the other 94 members had to watch the process. The debate mostly picked a lot of old scabs about the JBC.

The resolution failed on a 16-19 vote.

The Senate did approve three other resolutions: HJR 09-1025, creating an interim committee on school safety; SJR 09-044, creating an interim committee to study school safety, and SJR 09-056, the purely ceremonial resolution touting why Colorado’s education reform achievements make the state a good candidate for Race to the Top funds.

Lawmakers did not take up Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto of a footnote in Senate Bill 09-259, the 2009-10 long appropriations bill. The footnote would have allowed state colleges and universities, under a certain combination of financial circumstances, to raise 2009-10 tuition more than 9 percent. As it stands without the footnote, 9 percent is the ceiling for tuition hikes, although community colleges and four-year schools are likely to approve lower increases.

(In case you’re wondering why so much of this story is about the Senate, that’s because the House was much more efficient about it last-day work and spent much of the day in recess waiting for the Senate to catch up.)

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.