Who Is In Charge

Revenue picture still iffy

The 2012 legislative session probably will face budget cuts similar to those made by the 2011 session, based on revenue forecasts released Tuesday.

Colorado CapitolEconomic recovery remains slow and uncertain, and conditions have deteriorated since the last set of forecasts was issued in June, legislative and executive branch economists told the Joint Budget Committee and a hearing room packed with lobbyists and state bureaucrats.

Some education budget watchers expect Gov. John Hickenlooper will propose a K-12 funding cut of $200 million to $300 million when he makes his 2012-13 budget proposal on Nov. 1. Hickenlooper proposed a $332 million K-12 cut for 2011-12, but the legislature managed to whittle that to about $160 million, using a variety of fiscal devices.

Henry Sobanet, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, told the committee that his September forecast will guide the governor’s budget plan. Another set of forecasts will be issued in late December, on the eve of the legislature’s 2012 session.

Both Sobanet and Natalie Mullis, the legislature’s chief economist, noted increased economic weakness since they made their June predictions.

“The recovery has slowed,” said Mullis, adding, “The chances of recession are rising. … The ability of the economy to withstand outside shocks is waning.”

Sobanet’s June forecast was more pessimistic than Mullis’, and he said, “We really didn’t change our expectations” in the latest forecast.

Both forecasts predicted the state will have enough revenue in 2012-13 to cover current levels of spending – but that rising costs and caseloads, such as Medicaid patients, schoolchildren and college students, will mean more demands for state spending than available revenue.

The Legislative Council forecast estimates that the legislature will have $367.2 million more to spend for 2012-13 than it did for the current 2011-12 budget year. (The current general fund budget is about $7.2 billion.)

Mullis said the rule of thumb is that caseload and cost increases amount to about $300 million a year.

Past legislatures have cut some programs temporarily, like $100 million in property tax relief for seniors, to soften cuts in other areas. The suspension is supposed to expire for the next budget year, so lawmakers will have to decide if they want to cut elsewhere to cover that or suspend it again.

So to balance the 2012-13 budget, next year’s legislature will have to cut other programs to meet caseload and costs growth, decide to ignore some of those commitments – like school and college enrollment growth, reduce the size of the state reserve or continue money-saving tactics like suspension of the seniors’ tax break. Lawmakers likely will use a combination of all four tactics.

Because schools and higher education consume nearly half of the state general fund budget, there’s no way to avoid cutting them in the current situation.

“Balancing the budget will require the legislature to make many difficult choices,” said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton and chair of the JBC.

The state ended the 2010-11 fiscal year with more money that was required for the reserve, triggering a transfer of $226.9 million to the perennially strapped State Education Fund and of $67.5 million to the State Public School Fund. The two funds are used to support state aid to districts and for other education programs. The $67.5 million will be distributed to some school districts next year based on enrollment growth and declines in local tax revenue.

In recent years the state has dipped heavily into the SEF to reduce the amount of K-12 spending that had to be supported by the general fund, the state’s main account for a variety of departments and programs.

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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.