Who Is In Charge

Hidden bummer factors abound for education

The headline from the June state revenue forecasts is bad enough – Colorado state government faces a cumulative general fund revenue shortfall of $838 million through the middle of 2012, meaning no respite from budget cutting and fund shifting.

But, while higher education actually may be somewhat shielded from further cuts, the fine print of the forecasts contains some disheartening news for K-12 schools.

Legislative and executive branch economists gave their quarterly revenue forecasts to the Joint Budget Committee and other legislators during a standing-room-only packed with executive branch officials and lobbyists.

Revenues are $249 million short to fund the current 2008-09 budget, which closes June 30. However, mechanisms approved by the 2009 legislature will allow Gov. Bill Ritter to balance that budget without the need for additional legislative action. Total state spending from all sources is about $18 billion. The tax-supported general fund provides about $7.5 billion of that.

“We will be able to hold 2008-09 solvent … so we will not have to have a special session,” concluded Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge and chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

However, the $249 million gap will roll into the 2009-10 budget, which along with additional projected shortfalls will bring the total to $873 million through the 2010-11 fiscal year, declining slightly to $838 million by the end of fiscal 2011-12. (The 2009 legislature previously had to cut or replace $1.4 billion in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets.)

While the forecast appears to mean the 2010 legislature will have to look hard for budget cuts and fund transfers, it may be difficult to get serious money out of higher education or K-12 spending.

State colleges and universities traditionally have been the budget-cutting victims in past downturns because higher ed has no dedicated or protected sources of revenue.

But the federal stimulus – the American Recovering and Reinvestment Act – requires states to keep higher ed state spending at 2005-06 levels to be eligible for federal aid. That’s just what the 2009 legislature and Ritter did – reducing state support to those old levels and then keeping overall college spending at 2008-09 amounts with $300 million in stimulus funds. (Tuition increases of 9 percent across the higher ed system also are part of the budgetr.) The plan is to effectively freeze college spending at current amounts through 2009-10 and 2010-11, when the stimulus ends.

Additional cuts in state support would require federal waiver to avoid loss of the stimulus money.

So, “higher education is not an option because it actually is protected by the federal government,” Keller said.

K-12 is protected by Amendment 23, although it now appears doubtful that the $110 million in school aid that’s being held in “escrow” until January will be released.

There also is expected to be increased debate over whether some parts of K-12 spending – primarily the so-called factors of cost of living, at-risk and school size – are covered by Amendment 23. Earlier this year, some lawmakers urged doing that, but the escrowed $110 million was the compromise that made it out of the 2009 session. Even that step was seen as an A23 violation by some/

Deeper in the economic forecasts is additional bad news for education. The Office of State Planning and Budgeting is projecting 0 inflation in 2009, which could dramatically affect calculation of the Amendment 23 formula for the 2010-11 budget year.

“We’re showing very low levels of inflation – flat – for 2009,” said Todd Saliman, OSPB director.

Inflation in 2008 was 3.9 percent for 2009-10 budget, meaning state support of K-12 spending increased 4.9 percent, including the 1 percent sweetener required by A23. Legislative Council is predicting .4 percent in 2009 and 1.6 percent in 2010. The OSPB is predicting 0 percent in 2009 and 1.5 percent in 2010.

If OSPB is right, that could mean a 2010-11 increase of state support for K-12 of only 1 percent plus enrollment growth and whatever backfilling the state has to provide because of drops in local property tax revenues.

According to the OSPB forecast, “the budgetary increase for K-12 education in FY 2010- 11 is predominately anticipated to be a function of changes in pupil count, changes in local share from revisions to property valuations, and the mandatory 1.0 percent increase required per Amendment 23.  Because personal income growth from 2008 to 2009 is projected to equal 0.2 percent, the 5.0 percent General Fund maintenance of effort requirement for K-12 total program will be suspended for FY 2010-11.”

With so much pressure on the overall budget, many lawmakers will resist giving K-12 more than A23 requires.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee, attended Monday’s briefing, along with several other lawmakers who aren’t JBC members.

After the meeting, he predicted to EdNews that the debate over the factors will reopen and said, “K-12 is not positioned well,” given the predicted low inflation. He noted that things could be especially difficult for districts with declining enrollment – well over half of Colorado’s 178 districts. Even with the current state increase, many districts are cutting overall spending – and resisting teacher demands for raises – because overall costs are rising faster than state aid.

State personal income also is declining, which could reduce revenue flowing into both the State Education Fund and the amount of general fund money that has to be used to support the Amendment 23 formula.

The SEF receives one-third of 1 percent of income tax revenues. The Legislative Council report said that that the fund received $407.9 million in 2007-08, will get $339.9 million in 2008-09, down 16.7 percent, and $340 million in 2009-10.

Some legislators, most notably Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, argue that a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year allows lawmakers to eliminate tax exemptions and raise revenue with voter approval. The budget pressures could make doing so attractive, but there will be countervailing political pressures in an election-year session.

House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, said Monday, “For many lawmakers, this will be one more push to engage our constituents in a larger discussion about the role of government.”

The next revenue forecasts will be issued in late September, at about the same time the Ritter administration will begin making detailed suggestions for budget rollbacks to the JBC.

Ritter said Monday, “I will be meeting with the JBC, legislative leaders and my budget staff in the coming days to put together that balancing plan.”

The annual December forecasts tee up the budget debate for the legislative session, and then lawmakers generally wait for the March forecasts before finalizing the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.

One more higher ed note

The 2008 legislature created a Higher Education Federal Mineral Lease Revenue Fund designed to provide a revenue stream for backlogged college construction projects. The OSPB forecast estimates that those revenues will be sufficient to continue payments on existing projects but recommends that no new projects be started because of weak interest revenues in the fund.

Do your homework

For budget mavens, both reports provide a great deal of detail both about state finances and the current condition of the state and national economies. (The Legislative Council report also includes economic snapshots of various Colorado regions.) As is usually the case, legislative economists generally are more pessimistic this time than those in the executive branch. The major difference in this round of forecasts appears to be over estimates of unemployment.

Legislative Council forecast
Office of State Planning and Budgeting forecast

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.