Who Is In Charge

Make room for another study

The calendar for the next few months already is packed with education finance studies, but it looks like one more is going to be added to the list.

David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education, is pushing for an 18-month project to craft a new master plan for the state’s colleges and universities. While finance wouldn’t be the sole focus of the project, the shaky condition of college funding is one impetus for the study.

Several other studies are already in progress, including:

The legislative Interim Committee to Study School Finance, which will meet this summer and fall and prepare recommendations for the 2010 legislative session. (Some members have suggested aspects of college funding ought to be part of their work.)

The legislative Long-term Fiscal Stability Commission, which is assigned to study Colorado’s overall revenue picture and constitutional constraints. Since K-12 and college spending account for just over half of annual state general fund spending, education unavoidably will be a big factor in this group’s discussions. It’s on the same time schedule as the other school finance committee.

Four committees are expected to convene shortly to advise Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien’s office on preparation of Colorado’s application for Race to the Top federal stimulus funds. This will be a summer-only project, because the state’s Race application will be due late summer or early fall. Even if Colorado is successful, money may not be awarded until the spring of 2010.

A study will begin later this year of the costs involved in implementing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That’s the 2008 overhaul of the education system that calls for descriptions of school and postsecondary/workforce readiness, new K-12 content standards, new statewide tests and alignment of the K-12 and postsecondary systems. The first part of this study is due next March, with the final report finished by October 2010. (This paid study will be done by an outside contractor.)

And, the P-20 Education Coordinating Council is scheduled to revive sometime this summer. The panel is on hiatus during legislative sessions but goes back to work later after receiving its annual “assignment” from Gov. Bill Ritter. It’s expected the council will have a lighter-than-usual load of work, at least until late fall, to avoid distracting from the Race to the Top effort.

All of the studying presumably will give the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions plenty to think about – and to sort out, since there likely will be overlap and conflict.

Skaggs told EdNews he began thinking a few months ago about a new higher education master plan, prompted by several things, including:

A state law that directs the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to develop a master plan. But, the last one was done 10 years ago and, as a Skaggs memo to the commission dryly notes, “Conditions facing higher education have change substantially in the last decade.” (Among other things, two economic downturns and resulting state financial crises in the last decade have decimated state financial support for colleges.)

A recent report detailing the failings of the state College Opportunity Fund stipends.

The fact that the department already is doing some big-picture planning thanks to the Lumina Foundation’s Making Opportunity Affordable grant program, which focuses on expanding access to higher education.

The state financial crisis, which left college funding for 2009-10 frozen at 2008-09 levels. That level of support was patched together only with the help of federal stimulus funds, which will run out after the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Skaggs stresses the master plan won’t be only about money, but rather about “how higher education serves the state’s purposes and gets us where we need to be … that should be the driver of the need for money.” (For more detail on Skaggs’ thinking, see this memo.)

The plan, at least for now, is to hold a one-day conference of K-12 and college educators, business leaders, the governor, legislators and others in late July or early August. That meeting would decide on goals, objectives and the process for the master plan, and after that working groups would develop various pieces. The goal is for the commission to adopt a plan in December 2010 for submission to the 2011 legislature.

In anticipation of the master plan, CCHE last week approved Skaggs’ suggestion to automatically renew most college performance contracts, which would have expired this year.

The idea already has sparked lively discussion, particularly among college presidents, with whom Skaggs met the week of May 24. “I presented it with interesting results,” Skaggs told CCHE members on June 4. “There was some pushback.”

Some presidents, faced with falling off a financial cliff in July 2011, feel an 18-month study will take too long and that action on college funding needs to be taken earlier in 2010.

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton explained the presidents’ point of view to commissioners at the same meeting. “It is not that the leaders of the public higher education institutions are against planning … I think we all appreciate the intent.” Norton noted there was a higher ed summit two years ago that presidents didn’t think accomplished much. And, “the other major element is the time involved … we have to prepare for the cliff. … We know there will be intense pressure and need in the 2010 session” to address campus financial needs.

Several college presidents this year backed an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed college boards to set their own tuition rates and administer financial aid as they chose. (Tuition ceilings currently are set by the legislature, and the DHE allocates state financial aid.) Ritter opposed the bill, groundwork hadn’t been laid with legislators and it went nowhere. Neither did a related plan to allow community and some four-year colleges to raise revenue from property taxes.

Skaggs told EdNews “the governor is disinclined to raise that [tuition flexibility] next session,” adding that “the governor is of the mind that this is not the time to go laissez faire on tuition.” (Ritter’s up for re-election in November 2010.)

All this studying eventually will filter down to the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, and perhaps to voters in November 2011.

State political and education leaders increasingly feel that is the appropriate time to propose a constitutional amendment or amendments to alter the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and other constitutional requirements, and/or to propose new revenue sources for education and other state programs.

The state’s financial clock is ticking because 2011 is when Referendum C (the five-year window during which the state can spend “extra” revenues under TABOR), one factor in Amendment 23 (the multi-part formula requiring annual increases in K-12 spending) and federal stimulus money all expire.

Despite that, there appears to be less interest in going to voters in November 2010, partly because the ballot will be crowded with the contests for governor and U.S. senator, most legislative seats and who-knows-how-many other ballot measures.

Some legislators believe a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year allows them to raise revenue without voter approval by repealing existing tax exemptions, and that tactic is expected to at least be debated in 2010 as an alternative to asking voters for money.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.