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.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.