Who Is In Charge

Senate passes school finance bill

Updated 5:45 p.m. April 8 – The result was never in doubt, but the 2011-12 school finance act, Senate Bill 11-230, prompted 45 minutes of philosophical debate before the Senate passed it on a preliminary voice vote early Friday evening. A final recorded vote will be taken Monday.

The measure, in combination with other bills, sets total program funding next year at a bit more than $5.1 billion in state and local funds. Current year school funding is $260 million less than school support was in 2009-10.

Sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said, “We’re making the least bad choices. … It is what it is. I wish it were different.”

Several senators followed Bacon to the microphone, some to vent and some to challenge others’ assumptions about school funding. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Sen. Bacon is right that this is probably the least bad we can get, but it’s bad, really bad.” – Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
  • “There’s no way I can vote for this bill.” – Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
  • “It is widely taken for granted that we underfund education. … There is serious reason to question that assumption.” – Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield
  • “I don’t think you can say the state is not spending a lot of money on education.” – Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, argued that something must to be done to increase local funding of schools to reduce the burden on the state. Harvey blamed part of the education funding squeeze on skyrocketing Medicaid costs.

Later in the evening, the Senate passed an amendment to the main budget measure, Senate Bill 11-209, that restores the $5 million funding of the Colorado Counselor Corps. The Joint Budget Committee had recommended cutting the program to $2.5 million. Bacon and King proposed the successful amendment to restore funding, taking the extra cash from the State Education Fund. The bill was passed as amended.

The Senate spent the afternoon working through and approving a long list of budget bills. Others with direct impact on education include:

Senate Bill 11-184, which as amended would set up a tax amnesty next fall during which delinquent taxpayers could pay up. Most of the revenue would go to education. The measure became a mini-Christmas tree bill, with several senators trying to tap into its revenues for other programs.

A couple of those “raids” succeeded, even one that taps some $450,000 to soften cuts in state employee mileage reimbursements in another bill.

Hudak managed to get $30,000 out of the bill to pay for the CDE’s family literacy program, which also was to be cut in another bill.

But a Hudak amendment to take $500,000 to pay for the network or county early childhood councils failed.

After the amendments, the bill would leave a bit more than $8 million for education from the amnesty.

The body also passed Senate Bill 11-218, which closes out several small funds in the Department of Education and sweeps them into the State Education Fund.

(Text of Thursday story follows)

Lawmakers held their noses and voted Thursday for key elements of the 2011-12 state budget package, setting up full Senate floor consideration of several bills on Friday.

The main act of the day was the Senate Appropriations Committee passage of Senate Bill 11-230, the school finance act, by a vote of 9-1. The measure will cut K-12 total program funding for 2011-12 by $250 million from this year’s levels. It also makes permanent the provision that allows lawmakers to reduce school funding when necessary.

While the cut is lower than the $332 million originally proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, nobody’s happy about it.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, is carrying the new school finance bill but isn't happy about it.

Several of the witnesses who testified at the hearing urged lawmakers to find ways to reduce the cut further.

“We’ll continue to see dramatic impacts on students across our state” because of the $250 million cut, said Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association.

She also said, “We have significant problems” with the provision that makes permanent the reduction factor in the school finance formula.

Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Schools Boards, said, “We see it as a sad day when the choice is between a school child and a fee benefit for Walmart.”

She was referring to another piece of the House-Senate budget compromise that reinstates a fee paid to retailers, including big ones such as Walmart, for collecting sales taxes. It was the first time in 17 years that CASB isn’t supporting a school finance bill, she said; it’s neutral this year.

Jason Callegari, representing the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said budget cuts are threatening the flexibility that charter schools prize: “As we project into the future, we don’t see an end to these cuts.”

The hearing, which had been moved to the Capitol’s largest meeting room, drew a smaller crowd that some had expected and lasted only about 90 minutes.

“The situation is as it is,” said sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat and a former teacher and school board member. “Even though none of us really want this, we find that the times are such that it’s the best we can do.”

The only no vote was Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who called the cuts “not only a travesty but a tragedy.” Heath is the promoter of a possible November ballot measure that would raise state income and sales taxes to help fund schools and colleges.

Earlier in the day, the committee approved a long list of other budget measures, including Senate Bill 11-209, the long appropriations bill. See this EdNews story for details on the education components of the budget-balancing package.

Simple task prompts long speeches

Over in the House, members of the State Affairs Committee apparently were more eager to talk Thursday than they were to eat.

After a grueling House floor session, the committee convened over the lunch hour with a very simple assignment – removing from Senate Bill 11-076 an earlier amendment that would have allowed school boards and other local governments to reduce their contributions to the state pension system while requiring employees to increase their payroll deductions.

That amendment was pushed by Republicans who argued such a swap would give school districts more flexibility in a tight budget year. The bill was strongly opposed by unions, who bombarded legislators with a massive email campaign by members.

Even though the school district swap wouldn’t have directly affected the state budget, dropping the idea was part of the House-Senate budget compromise that was reached Tuesday.

The original bill, proposed by the Joint Budget Committee to help balance the budget, continues a separate swap under which the state and higher education institutions save money by reducing their contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association by 2.5 percent. But employees have to pay an additional 2.5 percent. That part of the bill remains intact.

The only witness was Scott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS. He trooped to the witness table to put in a for-the-record plea not to cut state workers’ take-home pay.

His comments sparked a long series of speeches by Democratic and Republican members alike, covering well-worn partisan ground on civil servant pay and pensions. The discussion was polite and even genteel – a faint echo of the union fights taking place in other states – but it consumed an hour of time for an outcome that was predetermined.

The school board amendment was stripped from the bill, and the original bill passed 7-2.

Make a bet for college kids?

A new bill with a familiar subject was introduced Thursday. Senate Bill 11-233 would allow the Colorado Lottery Commission to authorize video gaming terminals at two locations in the state. Net proceeds would go to higher education scholarships.

The sponsors are Democratic Sens. Mary Hodge of Brighton and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton; there are no House sponsors signed on yet.

Video-gaming proposals are something of a late-session favorite. Last year, then-Sen. Chris Romer – now running for mayor of Denver – floated two gaming plans to fund higher education. Neither went anywhere.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”