Who Is In Charge

Final Senate OK for 2010-11 school cuts

Wednesday roundup
Senate spars over CEA ‘subsidy’
TABOR exemptions introduced
Wins for Ft. Lewis, leadership academy
For the record

Update 10:50 a.m., April 1 – The Senate Thursday gave final approval to House Bill 10-1369, the school finance measure for next school year. The bill provides the mechanism for the most significant cut in state K-12 in many years.

The Senate amended parts of the bill that relate to funding of seven districts that have high local revenues. It’s expected that House-Senate differences in the bill will be dealt with in conference committee.

Also Thursday the House gave final approval to House Bill 10-1376, the main state 2010-11 budget bill.

(Text of Thursday story follows.)

The Senate Wednesday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-1369, the school finance bill that cuts 2010-11 state aid to K-12 schools 6.3 percent below the level originally approved for this year.

The outcome wasn’t in doubt, given the state’s budget situation, but that didn’t prevent senators from debating three amendments related to the equity of the cuts, to declining districts and to district administrative costs.

A primary goal of the bill is ensuring that all districts receive an equal percentage cut – the 6.3 percent.

But a handful of the state’s 178 school districts – seven, to be exact – have higher-than-average local revenues and therefore receive relatively small amounts of state aid. As the bill was passed by the House, HB 10-1369 would force those districts to temporarily reduce local revenue in order to realize overall cuts of 6.3 percent.

The districts are Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit.

Some senators were uncomfortable with the idea of taking away what local voters had approved, and the issue became the focus of floor debate Wednesday. The Senate ultimately approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, to bar reduction of the local revenue in the seven districts.

The Senate rejected a counter amendment by Democratic Sens. Pat Steadman and Michael Johnston, both of Denver. It would have required the seven districts to take the cut out of state aid for transportation and other special-purpose funding, not from local revenue.

Senators also rejected an amendment by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, to cushion the cuts to 17 districts that are losing additional amounts of state support because their enrollments are declining. (Brophy represents a large rural senatorial district.) The amendment prompted sharp criticism from Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, who’s long complained about funding of what he calls “phantom students.” (Current state law contains a formula that spreads out over several years the revenue losses experienced by shrinking districts.)

The Senate did pass an amendment proposed by Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. It “encourages” school districts within individual counties to discuss ways they could save money by sharing administration services.

The amendment initially died on a voice vote but subsequently passed on a 20-14 roll call.

Many smaller districts around the state already are sharing some services, but the issue remains touchy because many smaller communities fear the specter of district consolidation. A recent study done for the state found there widespread consolidation might not necessarily save much money.

The Senate amendments make it likely differences will have to be resolved in a conference committee.

One spat generates a second

Despite having spent a fair amount of time Monday wrangling over a minor education data bill, the Senate managed to spend another 25 minutes Wednesday quarrelling before passing House Bill 10-1171 on a  20-14 party-line vote.

The measure is intended to eliminate a handful of reports school districts have to make to the Colorado Department of Education. But it’s become freighted with differing views about the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and rhetoric about which party is the bigger champion of government transparency.

At issue was one report targeted by the bill, a spreadsheet named CDE-18, which is a summary of a district’s budget.

CDE officials have said repeatedly that the only organization that’s ever asked for CDE-18 information is the CEA, which uses it for research. (However, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, another interest group that doesn’t necessarily agree with CEA on all points of education policy, supports continuing the CDE-18 requirement.)

The Senate Monday took CDE-18 out of the bill, meaning school districts and other education agencies will have to continue filing it. On Wednesday, Sen. Gail Scwhartz, -D-Snowmass, proposed an amendment that would “encourage” districts to also post the budget report on their websites.

That reignited the whole debate, with Democrats arguing for transparency and public information and Republicans complaining about a burden on schools and doing favors for the CEA.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, complained about “a redundant report that makes no sense for any organization but one,” referring to an “untenable burden” for school districts. (A legislative staff report on the bill concluded eliminating the whole batch of reports would generate no cost savings for districts.)

“This body has become the tool of a private organization,” fumed Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “I ask for a no vote on the CEA subsidy bill.”

“It has nothing to do with across the street,” said Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, a retired teacher. (CEA headquarters sits just northeast of the Capitol, on the north side of East Colfax Avenue.)

CEA is a major contributor to Democratic legislative candidates and a regular whipping boy for some Republicans.

Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, got in a dig on the issue, saying he missed former Senate President Peter Groff, a Denver Democrat who frequently differed with CEA on education reform. Because of that loss of education reform leadership, perhaps “it’s not a coincidence” that Colorado ranked so poorly in the Race to the Top competition, Penry said.

The debate also hinted at the rhetorical partisan switch that’s happened this year on the issue of the transparency of school district finances. Republicans attempted to make hay with that issue in 2009 with a bill requiring districts provide extensive financial information on their websites. That bill died, but over the summer Democrats and school districts developed their own version of the legislation, House Bill 10-1036, which was passed earlier this session and has been sent to the governor.

TABOR-exemption resolutions both introduced

Companion resolutions that propose a constitutional amendment that would exempt state education spending from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requirement that voters approve tax increases have been formally introduced.

The measures are House Concurrent Resolution 10-1002, introduced Tuesday, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-002, introduced Wednesday. Each was assigned to the respective education committee in each house.

Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada

The House measure has 29 Democratic sponsors in the House, lead by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada. The eight Democrats on the 13-member House Education Committee all are signed on.

The Senate prime sponsors are Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams of Aurora and Chris Romer of Denver, and the other three sponsors are Sen. Bob. Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education; Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

No Republicans are signed on to the resolutions, either of which will need 44 House votes and 24 in the Senate to go to the voters in November. Getting those totals will require at least a few GOP votes.

The idea isn’t likely to pass; even some sponsors have said they don’t think it will. But, the proposal is regarded as a “conversation starter” on the issue of school funding, which will be cut significantly in 2010-11.

Twin measures were introduced to ensure the idea will be discussed in both houses. If a single proposal dies in its house of origin, it never gets discussed in the second house.

According to an Associated Press story, other budget-related proposals are in the works for the closing weeks of the session. Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, and Minority Leader Mike May, D-Parker, reportedly are behind the ideas. (Both are term limited.)

The ideas reportedly include a common application for all higher education institutions and diversion of all remedial students to community colleges; greater operational flexibility for the Department of Corrections, including the ability to close prisons, and requiring local governments to contribute to transportation projects.

House plows through budget bills

The House spent most of the day considering 2010-11 budget-balancing bills and House Bill 10-1376, the long appropriations bill.

Because amending the long bill is a zero-sum game – you can’t add spending in one place without subtracting dollars someplace else – floor debate is basically an exercise in political theater (with a very dull plot).

However, representatives did approve removal of a footnote that forbid the Fort Lewis College trustees from raising out-of-state tuition. (This is part of the David-and-Goliath fight between Fort Lewis and state budget bureaucrats over the cost of educating non-resident Native American students. Under an old treaty, such students get free tuition.)

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And, Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, won approval for an amendment restoring $75,000 in funding for the school leadership academy, a principal training program created by Merrifield legislation two years ago.

(An early Joint Budget Committee proposal to also eliminate the Colorado Counselor Corps program didn’t make it into the long bill as it was introduced.)

For the record

The House voted 65-0 to pass Senate Bill 10-154, which changes accreditation standards for alternative schools. But the bulk of the day in the House was being spent on House Bill 10-1376, the 2010-11 long appropriations bill, and several related budget-balancing measures.

The Senate Education Committee passed House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to run school food service programs and create a still-to-be-funded grant program to help BOCES buy healthy foods. The panel also passed House Bill 10-1035, which is designed to streamline the eligibility process for various early childhood services.

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

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.