Who Is In Charge

Flap dooms Fort Lewis tuition bill

Friday roundup
– Charter bill surfaces
– Tax study launched

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, has learned that you mess with a college’s budget at your peril.

A controversy over Native American student tuition at Fort Lewis College – which really is a bureaucratic fight about money – has forced her to withdraw her bill to change how the state pays for such students, creating a $1.8 million cut for the college.

Middleton announced at a Capitol news conference on Friday that, “I will kill this bill.” The measure, House Bill 10-1067, is on the House Education Committee calendar for Monday afternoon.

Rep. Karen Middleton
Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, spoke at a news conference Jan. 22, 2010.

“This was never meant to be a direct impact on Native Americans,” said Middleton, who blamed part of the controversy on “misleading” media coverage. “I want to set the record straight.”

Under the terms of an early 20th century treaty, Colorado must provide free tuition to Native American students at Fort Lewis, whether they’re Colorado residents or not. There are about 650 non-resident Native Americans at the college and a much smaller number of residents.

The problem was created by early 21st century budgeting techniques. While the legislature sets limits on how much resident tuition can increase in a year, college boards are free to charge whatever they want for out-of-staters, even if it’s higher than the actual cost of educating those students. Colleges use the extra money to cover other budget needs.

In the case of Fort Lewis, non-residents who aren’t Native American pay the full freight $16,060 a year) with their own money or scholarships, but the state treasury has to pick up the cost for Native Americans.

Middleton’s bill, which originated with the Department of Higher Education, would have allowed the state to reimburse Fort Lewis at the actual cost of instruction, to be determined by DHE but estimated at $13,271 a year.)

A legislative staff fiscal analysis pegged the reimbursement for non-resident Native Americans at $10.4 million. Using cost of instruction would have cut that amount to $8.6 million, a $1.8 million savings for the cash-strapped state budget but a loss for hard-pressed Fort Lewis, which is facing additional cuts in other state support.

The state has had to reduce the amount of work-study money it provides to students statewide to cover its reimbursements to Fort Lewis.

Middleton also said, “They [Fort Lewis] were unwilling to come to the table and negotiate.”

Asked if she thought Fort Lewis backers had used the Native American issue as a “wedge” tactic to win a budget battle, Middleton paused to frame her answer and then said, “I would suggest that may have played into it.”

Both Middleton and Rico Munn, DHE director, seemed peeved by the whole affair. “I think it’s very unfortunate the way her bill has been characterized,” Munn said at the news conference.

Asked the “wedge” question, Munn said, “I’m not going to try to characterize it.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who observed the news conference, said, “I firmly disagree” with the wedge characterization.

Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the state Commission of Indian Affairs, said, “It has never been about the state taking away” anything from Indian students.

In a later telephone interview with EdNews, Fort Lewis administrator Steve Schwartz said, “We felt that the bill was not workable.” Schwartz, vice president for business and finance, said, “We’re willing to talk about the Native American [tuition] waiver,” adding, “The state needs to have some way to limit the waiver.” But, he said, the college wanted a backfill of the $1.8 million loss.

Schwartz added, “The time to look at the Native America waiver is as part” of the higher education strategic planning process, due to kick off at a meeting next Wednesday. (Lots of people these days are saying various higher ed problems should be kicked into that process.)

The broader higher ed budget fight will waged in the Joint Budget Committee. The Ritter administration has proposed rolling back state support of colleges to 2005-06 levels, wiping out “catch up” funding increases some colleges, such as Fort Lewis, have gained since then.

The introduction of Middleton’s bill a few days ago was followed by somewhat breathless media reports, such as “A liberal arts colleges is being threatened with cuts in its free tuition program for Native students” and  “Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would cut $1.8 million in funding each year for Native American students attending Fort Lewis College in Durango and could violate a 99-year-old Indian treaty.”

According to the Durango Herald, more than 200 people attended a protest meeting at the college last Wednesday, and more than 150 students were planning to come to Denver Monday to protest. (By the way, Durango was snowbound on Friday, the college was closed and some mountain passes in the region were closed.)

Charter institute bill introduced

A measure to makes changes in the Colorado Charter School Institute was introduced Friday by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and 13 bipartisan cosponsors from both houses.

Senate Bill 10-111 would allow a institute charter school to join a board of cooperative education services (giving them access to special education services), launch of study of whether institute charters could be designated as local agency agencies (giving them certain status under federal law), give the institute more flexibility with facilities funding and repeal some reporting requirements by the institute to local school districts.

Sponsor makes lukewarm endorsement of tax-study resolution

The House Friday approved Senate Joint Resolution 10-002, which commissions the University of Denver to do a comprehensive study of state and local tax systems.

Estimated cost of the study is $750,000, to be raised from private funds. The resolution was pushed through in the session’s early days to make it easier for DU to raise the money. A report is due to the 2011 legislature.

One cosponsor, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, gave the bill an oddly backhanded endorsement, saying, “In all honesty I would tell you I have concerns. … Please vote your conscience. … If it’s partisan in any way it will be a waste of time.”

Several Republicans did just that and voted no in the final 40-24 tally. (The Senate passed the measure 34-1, with only Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, voting against.)

The study is expected to be coordinated by DU’s Center for Colorado’s Economic Future, which is run by Charlie Brown, the respected former director of the Legislative Council staff.

But, some of the conclusions of prior DU research reports on immigration, constitutional reform and the state economy don’t exactly align with GOP orthodoxy. Those studies were done by a different DU arm, the Strategic Issues Program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for bill texts and status information.


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.