Who Is In Charge

Lobato 9/2: A long chapter closes

Five weeks of testimony and uncounted documents got summed up in less than three hours of lawyers’ speeches Friday as the Lobato v. State trial wound up.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe next phase of the case is in the hands of Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport, who will decide on the issue of whether the state school finance system fails to meet constitutional requirements and if the legislature should be ordered to come up with a new one.

The end of the trial marks one more step in the lawsuit’s long odyssey, which began with filing in 2005. Since then the case has been through another Denver judge, the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.

The closing statements by four lawyers capped a trial that has combined mountains of information, emotion, boredom, occasional tension between lawyers, confident witnesses and stressed witnesses and even Skype video testimony.

The case “is about a failing system that is unconstitutional,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Kenzo Kawanabe in closing. Defense lawyer Jonathan Fero countered that the plaintiffs are seeking an “education utopia” that isn’t required by the constitution.

What they said

Kenzo Kawanabe
Kenzo Kawanabe

Kenzo KawanabeLawyer for plaintiff parents and school districts

Using PowerPoint slides, Kawanabe talked through the plaintiffs’ key points, including that the finance system “has no rational basis” and doesn’t meet the constitution’s requirement that the legislature establish a “thorough and uniform” system. He also argued that the system violates another constitutional section that guarantees local control of schools because districts have to use local funds to cover basic costs that should be covered by the state.

Kawanabe recapped some of the witness testimony about budget cuts and student achievement challenges, praising the superintendents who were brave enough “to describe a failing Colorado education system.

“They know what works” to improve student achievement, he said. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the funds to apply what works.”

He said state witnesses “ignore their failures.”

Turning to the cost of recent education reforms, a key part of the plaintiffs’ case, Kawanabe reminded the judge, “These are requirement, they are not aspirations” and that the state has provided little money to fund them.

Closing, Kawanabe said he case “is for the sake of our children, this is for the sake of our constitutional democracy, this is for the sake of our state.”

David HinojosaLawyer for a second group of parents in four districts

David Hinojosa
David Hinojosa

Hinojosa, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, represents families in four low-income districts, Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan.

“This case is about lost opportunities” for low-income children and English language learners, he said. In addition to supporting the plaintiffs’ main constitutional claims, the MALDEF case also has focused on the inadequacy of funding for programs that help poor, ELL and special needs students.

“They can achieve if provided appropriate education opportunities,” he said.

Hinojosa argued that the legislature already has defined “thorough and uniform” by passing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, with its new standards and tests; the 2009 accountability system, which rates districts and schools based primarily on test scores, and the 2010 educator effectiveness law, which ties teacher evaluations partly to student test score growth.

State witnesses argue education reforms mean “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Hinojosa said. “Unfortunately that’s the light of a train coming in the opposite direction.”

Jonathan FeroAssistant attorney general representing the state

Johathan Fero
Johathan Fero

Fero, wearing his signature bow tie, made the shortest closing, taking a bit less than half of his allotted hour. Speaking smoothly from notes, he didn’t use visual aids.

The plaintiffs “haven’t got as much as they want from the legislature and the voters so they’ve come to your courtroom.” He argued, “neither group of plaintiffs have met this burden” of proving that the school finance system has no rational relationship to the constitutional requirements.

“What plaintiffs and plaintiff-intevenors really want is an education utopia” and believe an education system can’t be rational unless it solves social problems.

“This utopia – the constitution just doesn’t require it.”

He argued that educational successes and failures aren’t the result of state funding but of district choices.

“Colorado has gotten a lot of bang for its buck,” he said, closing by saying to Rappaport, “We ask you not to second guess the legislature.”

Kathleen GebhardtLawyer for first group of plaintiffs

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt, a moving force behind lawsuit since before it was filed, tag-teamed rebuttal arguments with Kawanabe and spoke last.

“This is not a case about a child playing one parent off another,” she said, referring to the defense argument about plaintiffs asking the courts for what the legislature didn’t give.

“This is a case about the constitutional rights of Colorado’s 800,000 school children.”

She argued, “The state misstates the law. … The pertinent issue is whether there is a rational relationship between the funding system set up by the legislature and the [education] requirements imposed by the legislature.

“These standards are not optional. … Districts have to comply, and there are consequences for failing to comply.”

She continued that Colorado has a system “that ratchets up the standards, ratchets up the expectations and diminishes the resources.”

Gebhardt concluded her closing by showing a fast-motion version of a video compiled by Stefan Walsh, a Center High School graduate. The video shows conditions in various districts around the state. (See this story for more information about the video and a player to view it.)

Cleanup testimony

State Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Friday morning saw testimony by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, the last witness for the state.

King defended the process by which the legislature considers the school finance bill every year and said, “That’s why I think the General Assembly is the one that ought to do the school finance act,” not the courts.

“The system is not perfect [but] I think the General Assembly has come together and worked very diligently … to provide a good system of schools for our kids.”

The plaintiffs also called a succession of witnesses to rebut various assertions by state witnesses. All had testified before except former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver.

Asked if he thought state schools were thorough and uniform, Romanoff said, “I do have an opinion. … My opinion is that we have not met our constitutional obligation. … It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion.”

Highlights of the last day

TONE: There was a last-day-of-school air in the courtroom after things wrapped up, with lawyers, assistants, plaintiffs, families and friends clustered in groups chatting and smiling in relief at the end of the long trial.

QUOTE: “They call me the amendment king.” – Sen. Keith King, referring to the 85 education bills and “hundreds” of amendments he’s proposed during his career in both the House and Senate. (True story – people at the Capitol do call him the “Amendment King.”)

MANEUVERING: King kept tripping over the ban on talking about the TABOR Amendment and other state spending (explanation here). Plaintiff’s lawyers had to keep reminding him. “I’ll try to be good,” he said.

DOCUMENTS: If you want some historical insight into how the current school finance system got started, read the report of the 1993 legislative study committee that studied school finance and whose work led to the current law. Refresh your memory on what was said during the trial with the stories in our Lobato archive.

SEEN: Except for the participants, the courtroom has been pretty empty for most days of the trial. The excruciatingly uncomfortable wooden pews were mostly filled Friday, primarily with some plaintiffs, friends and relatives of lawyers and a scattering of education types.

WHAT’S NEXT: Lawyers in the case have 45 days to submit what are called proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law – essentially the ruling they’d like the judge to issue. The judge, or course, isn’t bound by those and doesn’t have a deadline for ruling.


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.