Who Is In Charge

Bills slowly jelling in school finance panel

The work of the School Finance Interim Committee has boiled down to 13 possible bills, none of which propose any sweeping changes in the way Colorado pays for K-12 education.

Members of Interim School Finance Committee discussed possible bills.
Members of Interim School Finance Committee discussed possible bills.

The legislative panel has held more than half a dozen meetings to study and discuss the finance system, but the state’s budget crisis seems to have dissuaded members from floating any major changes to the formulas that drive distribution of the $3.5 billion in annual state aid to districts. (An additional $2 billion in local taxes also is spent on schools.)

Committee discussion – and individual member interests – has produced 11 bill drafts and two bill ideas that the panel kicked around on Thursday. The committee is supposed to vote later this month on which bills to recommend to the 2010 legislature.

While there are no significant changes proposed, some of the draft bills propose interesting approaches to significant problems, including some with school reform implications.

Enrollment counts:
Newly appointed Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing that the system of counting enrollment (and doling out state aid) be changed from the current Oct. 1 headcount to one based on average daily membership across the school year. This is a touch subject for school districts because average daily membership typically is lower than the enrollments counted every Oct. 1. So, the idea would be to conduct a pilot program and then phase the switch over three years.

Johnston, a principal in the Mapleton district, was at an out-of-state conference Thursday so couldn’t attend the meeting.

“I definitely think it [such a change] is coming; I don’t think it’s there yet,” said chair Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, referring to nervousness about such a switch during tight budget times. “We can contemplate it further at the next meeting.”

At-risk funding: Johnston also is proposing changes that would allocate money for at-risk students at charter schools based on actual at-risk enrollments. (The current system gives charters such funds based on the overall at-risk enrollments in their home districts.) His idea also would require districts to funnel a set percentage of at-risk dollars to the individual district schools the students actually attend.

A similar plan died in the 2009 legislative session. It’s a somewhat touchy idea because of its potential to create financial winners and losers among individual schools.

Johnston also is proposing an overall – but unspecified – increase in state at-risk aid, something that Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, called “over the rainbow” in the current budget climate.

New funding system for small districts: Middleton and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, are proposing variations on an idea to create a new funding systems for districts with fewer than 2,000 students. The current per-pupil funding system makes such districts financially vulnerable to even small enrollment drops.

The proposals would allow such districts to choose a stable amount of funding for five years, giving them time to plan for enrollment changes. Committee members are interested in using such a scheme as a “carrot” to encourage small districts to control costs by sharing services, and perhaps even superintendents, with neighboring districts.

Property tax freeze revenues: Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, is proposing a bill that would requires that all school aid saved by the state because of the 2007 property tax freeze be deposited in the State Education Fund.

The freeze law prevented automatic tax reductions in many districts, meaning the state didn’t have to backfill for the loss of those local revenues. Republicans termed the law unconstitutional, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise earlier this year. King argues it’s only right that the saved money be earmarked for other school spending out of the SEF, which is projected to become insolvent in the next year or two.

Some Democratic committee members cautioned Thursday that doing so would just shift money around to no purpose and reduce legislative budgeting flexibility.

School improvement zones: Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, is floating a bill that would authorize a school board or two boards “to create a school improvement zone of up to 10 public schools for the implementation of significant innovations in practice and procedure that are designed to improve academic performance.” Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, noted that the 2008 Innovation Schools Act pretty much allows that to happen now, and Romer acknowledged that.

Weighted student funding: King is proposing a state grant program for school districts to design weighted funding systems that would more finely target money based on individual student needs.

School awards: King and Merrifield want to come up with some money “to pay for banners and trophies for schools that are identified as eligible to receive awards under the Colorado school awards program.” (This one has “gifts, grants and donations” written all over it.) Merrifield said, “I’d buy the first two banners.” King replied, “I’ll buy as many as you do.”

Online education: Massey wants to continue a $500,000 program of supplemental funding for online education that is scheduled to expire.

Speech therapists: Massey also is proposing loosening of state requirements for speech and language pathology assistants who work in schools. Many districts have complained that current requirements are too high for the kind of assistants needed in schools, and that has led to a shortage of assistants. Some school administrators would prefer a system of waivers to accomplish this.

Spence piped up, “I’m trying to make the connection between this bill and school finance,” echoing an uncomfortable discussion that came up at the panel’s last meeting.

Online financial information: Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Massey are floating a plan to require school districts and other education agencies to post their financial information online, to be phased in over three years. This is a redo of a Republican idea killed in the legislature last spring.

State law cleanup: This draft bill would eliminate a handful of the reports school districts have to file with the state.

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newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: