Who Is In Charge

House debates “unfunded mandate”

Allowing high school students to take college classes before graduation usually is a feel-good issue that attracts wide legislative support. A 2009 upgrade of what’s call concurrent enrollment passed both houses unanimously.

Colorado CapitolBut House Bill 12-1043, which would create opportunities for students who are ahead of schedule in their high school studies, has had heavy going in the House, primarily because of fears about what it would cost school districts.

The bill would apply to high school students who start their senior years needing less than a full year’s worth of classes to graduate. Such students could choose to take college classes, and districts would be responsible for paying college tuition up to $3,176 a year. Districts would continue to count such students as enrolled and receive per pupil funding, which averages about $6,500 a year statewide.

A key issue is student choice; existing concurrent enrollment programs require district approval for students enrolling in college classes.

Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton and sole sponsor of the bill for now, had the bill amended in the House Education Committee to meet some district concerns.

But that apparently wasn’t enough for some House Democrats, who criticized the bill during floor debate.

“Here we are about to pass another unfunded mandate,” said Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. “The intent of the bill is good … the problem is the bill doesn’t come with any additional funding,” added Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County.

A Hamner amendment to make the program optional for districts was defeated, but the House did give voice approval to a Kerr amendment that says school districts wouldn’t have to implement the program until per-pupil funding returns to levels of 2008-09, the last year before school budget cuts began.

Conti returned to the microphone to defend the bill, saying, “There has been a lot of confusion on this issue.”

Then, Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, stepped to the podium and exercised the majority leader’s prerogative, laying the bill over until Tuesday.

Estimated cost of tax holiday trimmed

Committee amendments made to the sales tax holiday bill would trim the amount of lost state revenue from about $5.8 million a year to about $4.5 million, according to a new legislative fiscal analysis released Monday.

House Bill 12-1069 would create a three-day sales tax holiday during the first weekend in August during which school supplies costing $50 or less, clothing not costing more than $75 and computer equipment costing $1,000 or less would be exempt from state sales taxes. (The House Finance Committee reduced those amounts from those proposed in the original bill.) The holiday would run annually through 2016. Counties and cities would be free to decide whether to exempt such items from their portion of the sales tax.

During a Feb. 8 meeting of the committee, Chris Howes of the Colorado Retail Council argued that a tax holiday actually would increase state revenue, based on the experience of other states.

But the legislative fiscal analysis sticks with its estimate of a tax loss. The latest analysis reads: “Sales tax holidays tend to attract more shoppers into stores, which often relates to increased sales on taxable items that would not have occurred otherwise during the holiday period. This increased spending may partially offset the loss of sales tax revenue to the state and local governments due to the sale of exempt items during the sales tax holiday. Increased sales, however, may only represent a shift of purchases as consumers wait for the anticipated tax holiday to purchase items that they were already going to purchase at some point.”

Contracts bill passes on party-line vote

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Senate Bill 12-051 sparked a bit of a floor fight on preliminary Senate consideration last Friday, but the bill received final approval Monday with no debate. All 20 Senate Democrats voted yes, and all 15 Republicans voted no.

The bill would direct school boards to “consider” adopting contracting policies that would include the factor of “whether the contractor understands the culture of the affected school and will execute the contract in a manner that supports student success.”

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying the bill in the Senate. The House prime sponsor is Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee.

No debate on digital learning study

Massey also is a prime sponsor of House Bill 12-1124, which passed the House 64-0 on Monday. The measure would require the state Department of Education to hire a Colorado-based consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of digital education and report back to the State Board of Education, the governor and the legislative education committees by Jan. 31, 2013. (Get more details in this story about committee consideration.)

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is carrying the bill in the Senate.

In other action

Concealed carry bill: In another piece of parliamentary maneuvering Monday on the House floor, House Bill 12-1092 was sent back to the House Judiciary Committee. The measure received preliminary floor approval on Feb. 14 – after addition of a Democratic amendment that broadened the definition of school property on which the bill wouldn’t apply.

The bill would give people who have a legal right to carry handguns the ability to carry them concealed without obtaining a separate concealed weapons permit. Several Democrats questioned the need to send the bill back to committee, but the motion carried on a 34-30 votes. Gun rights bills are a Republican priority in this election-year session.

Another ASSET delay: Senate Bill 12-015, the ASSET bill that would create a special category of college tuition for undocumented students, has again been laid over, this time to the Senate floor calendar for Feb. 27. The measure is awaiting final Senate approval, but supporters are trying to drum up additional support outside the Capitol before sending the bill to the Republican-controlled Senate.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock
Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock
Philosophical grousing: A relatively minor bill consumed nearly an hour Monday afternoon before the House Education Committee voted 8-5 to pass House Bill 12-1218. The measure would extend the sunset date of the Early Childhood and School Readiness Commission, a legislative study panel, from this coming July 1 to July 1, 2017.

Some Republican members wondered if the group’s work overlaps with other state committees and complained that government is getting too deeply involved in families.

“I have a big concern about how we’re inserting ourselves younger and younger into private citizens’ lives,” said Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield and committee vice chair.

“I too have a great deal of concern at government getting too much into families’ lives,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. But she and Massey joined the panel’s six Democrats to send the bill to the House Appropriations Committee on an 8-5 vote.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.