Who Is In Charge

One too many years of cuts

Proposed school budget reductions next year may be the cuts that really damage the state’s education system, students, teachers, administrators and others told legislators Thursday.

Two students
Thornton High School freshmen Emily Cunis (left) and Angela Abraham were among those testifying at a legislative hearing on school budget cuts.

The Senate Education Committee held a 3½ -hour hearing to take testimony from 40 witnesses on the effects of budget cuts expected in the 2011-12 school year.

Go straight to video highlights of the testimony.

Much of the testimony was familiar, with school board members, administrators and teachers telling of employees laid off, salaries frozen, furloughs imposed, purchases deferred and other savings squeezed out of district budgets.

But there was a tone that hasn’t been heard as much during budget debates in previous years – that the upcoming reductions will directly harm classroom instruction.

The session also surfaced some novel ideas about dealing with the problem – like using state funds to match local property tax increases in every state district, an idea floated by committee member Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and the administrator of a charter school.

And one witness, former State Board of Education member Randy DeHoff, argued that it’s “a mistake” to focus on funding alone. “Much of K-12 funding has little effect on the achievement of students” but is tied to state and federal requirements. “The better question is … given the level of funding available, how can that funding be used more effectively?”

DeHoff also argued that the current structure of public education is outmoded and will be disrupted by the rise of online learning. “We can lead that change or we can watch it, but it will take place.”

Here’s a sampling of the warnings voiced at the hearing:

  • “This year it will affect the classroom. … We are looking at so many cuts I don’t know how much further we can go.” – Karen Stockley, Thompson board member
  • “What is there left to give? Is education really a place where we can do more with less?” – Doreen Groene, Brighton teacher
  • “We’ve kept our classrooms almost intact [but] there is not another $21 million in reductions we can make” without affecting classrooms. – Mary Chesley, Cherry Creek superintendent
  • Cuts “are going to compromise the future of our kids.” – Kevin Schott, Basalt High School principal
  • “We have no choice but to affect classrooms.” – Leslie Kiesler, Mesa board member
  • “We’re unraveling something pretty remarkable that we’ve built.” – Don Haddad, St. Vrain superintendent
  • “It’s hitting muscle” after four years of cuts. – Amanda Sheets, AFT-Colorado

Some witnesses echoed DeHoff in saying that state and federal mandates contribute to district financial problems.

“You shouldn’t have that many laws,” said former state Sen. Norma Anderson, holding up the thick book of state school laws.

Democratic Sens. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins (left) and Evie Hudak of Westminster
Democratic Sens. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins (left) and Evie Hudak of Westminster listened to testimony. (Photo courtesy Senate Majority Office.)

Referring to a pending bill that specifies amounts of physical activity in elementary schools, Anderson asked, “Do you really need to?”

As for the CSAP tests, Anderson said, “Get rid of them. I carried the bill, but get rid of them.”

Haddad, referring to what he called “flawed ideological initiatives,” said, “There is a clear nexus between” reform initiatives and school costs.

“We have to have some mature conversation that recognizes that these things cost money.”

A mandates bill is pending in this year’s session, but its likely impact is narrow.

Several witnesses touched on the issue of conflicting fiscal provisions in the state constitution that have affected state and district revenues.

Lyndon Burnett, president of the Agate school board, said, “There is no cure short of constitutional reform.”

Margie Adams, board chair of Great Education Colorado, scolded legislators for failing to support a proposed school-funding referendum last year and for discouraging such efforts this year:

“We couldn’t do it last year; we’re told we can’t do it this year. In the meantime, the cuts build up and we’re losing another generation.”

While the hearing was intended for information gathering, King used it as platform to float some policy ideas, including his just-announced idea to reduce cuts through a combination of state funding and local property tax increases. King also is backing a plan to allow school districts to save money by reducing their contributions to employee pensions while increasing such payroll deductions for employees.

At the very end of hearing, when most of the crowd had left, King invited Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of Schools Boards and Tony Salazar of the Colorado Education Association to the witness table to ask what they thought. Both were cool to the pension contributions swap, voicing concerns about its effect on the health of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

School funding history chart
Chart shows components of school funding over the last decade. Click to enlarge; note legend on right

The hearing was prompted by the Hickenlooper administration’s proposed $332 million cut in K-12 total program funding. While the latest state revenue forecasts indicate it may be possible to reduce that amount somewhat, school spending is caught up with several other budget issues, including the size of the state reserve for next year.

Disagreement over those issues appears to have hung up completion of the 2011-12 budget bill by the Joint Budget Committee, which has a 3-3 partisan split.

Thursday’s hearing was promoted by committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and by CEA, CASB and the Colorado Association of School Executives as a way of raising public awareness about the financial situation facing schools. The three groups organized several of the witnesses.

Video highlights of testimony before the Senate Education Committee

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

Movers & shakers

Memphis native named superintendent of Aspire network’s local schools

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job.

Manning will replace Allison Leslie, the founding superintendent of the charter network’s Memphis schools. She is leaving for Instruction Partners, an education consulting firm that works with school districts in Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana.

“I look forward to serving children and families in my hometown,” said Manning, who was previously Aspire’s associate superintendent, director of curriculum and instruction, outreach coordinator, and principal of its Aspire Hanley Elementary.

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis.

Manning said he hopes to focus on Aspire’s role in supporting students outside the classroom and to launch a community advisory board, composed of parents and neighborhood residents, to “make sure that the community has a voice.”

“We know that we need to support our children in more than just academics,” he told Chalkbeat.

In Memphis, most students who attend Aspire schools come from low-income neighborhoods. At its four local schools, the charter group serves about 1,600 Memphis students.

Manning, who holds a doctorate in education, is a graduate of Memphis’ Melrose High School, which sits less than two miles from two Aspire schools. Before joining the network, he worked as a teacher and administrator in the Memphis City Schools and served as principal of Lanier Middle School, which closed in 2014 due to low enrollment.

In a statement, Leslie praised Manning’s commitment to the network’s students, saying,“I am looking forward to seeing Dr. Manning continue the great work we started together and make it even better.”

Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and runs 36 schools there. The charter network was recruited to Memphis to join the state-run district in 2013 — the organization’s only expansion outside of California.

In Memphis, Aspire opened two schools in 2013 and grew to three schools the following year. That’s when it opened Coleman Elementary under the state-run district, before switching course in 2016 and opening Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school under the local Shelby County Schools.

This year, the charter network applied with Shelby County Schools to open its second a middle school, in Raleigh, in 2019. Though the application was initially rejected, Manning it would be resubmitted in the coming weeks, before the district’s final vote in August.

The proposed middle school harkens back to a dispute between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its state turnaround school. If approved, the state could create a new school that would be under local oversight.

“We are deeply committed to our children and families,”  Manning said. “We’ve heard from our families that they want continuity in K–8th-grade in their child’s time in schools. We’re committed to that end.”