Who Is In Charge

A Lobato debate in the House?

It looks like the full House may get to debate an issue lawmakers have been avoiding all session – the potential costs and tradeoffs posed by the Lobato v. State school funding case.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe potential vehicle for that discussion is House Bill 12-1109, an unlikely bill from an unlikely source, and a bill with virtually no chance of passage.

After hanging around on the calendar since Jan. 20, HB 12-1109 had its first hearing Tuesday morning in the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill proposes a draconian short-term solution to school funding problems – cutting the budgets of most state agencies by $198 million next year and putting the money in the State Education Fund, which is used to supplement state support of K-12 schools.

Its sole sponsor is Democratic Rep. Wes McKinley, a colorful southeastern Colorado rancher better known this session for bills on non-profit cemeteries and growing industrial hemp. McKinley’s original education bill proposes the across-the-board cut. He said Tuesday he’d be willing to amend the measure into a 7.9 percent cut in state employee salaries so state services wouldn’t be affected.

In something of a surprise, appropriations members spent nearly an hour debating the bill and then voted 8-5 to send it to the floor for consideration. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, joined seven Republicans in supporting the bill.

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh
Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh
“One reason I want this to go to the floor is that this is the Lobato discussion,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “What your bill will do, Representative McKinley, is to force a ‘if it were to be successful’ discussion. … I’d like to have 65 people have that discussion.” (The House has 65 members.)

Many critics of the Lobato ruling fear it would do the same thing on a larger scale that McKinley’s bill would do in a small way – force lawmakers to slash other government programs in order to increase school funding.

Two other Republicans, committee chair Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Rep. Glenn Vaad of Mead, agreed that the full House should have the debate. But Vaad stressed he was voting for the bill in committee only for that reason, not because he’d support it on the floor.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, also voted to send the bill to the floor but clearly isn’t a fan.

“You have the prize for the most fiscally inappropriate legislation,” she told McKinley. “You are basically cutting the core functions of government. … I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I’ve been working since November to make sure we take care of what we need to take care of. … I see this bill as being reckless.”

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, spoke up for McKinley. “Those previous comments I think, quite frankly, are out of line,” he said. “Representative McKinley tried to find a way to think outside the box to fund education.”

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said McKinley’s bill “brings into perfect focus” the state’s revenue problems. But she also said, “We’re going to have a long protracted debate and we all know here we are not going to pass this bill. … We don’t have time to have debates for the sake of debates.”

On Dec. 9 Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State suit, finding the state’s spending formula for K-12 schools does not meet constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” school system.

Estimates of what it might cost to meet Rappaport’s ruling run between $2 and $4 billion a year on top of the roughly $5.2 billion the state and districts now spend for basic school operating costs.

Attorney General John Suthers has appealed the ruling on behalf of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education, and the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall.

Although Rappaport’s decision came just weeks before the 2011 legislative session opened, there’s been no sustained discussion of the case during hearings on education bills or on the 2012-13 budget. Some lawmakers predicted in January that would be the case because legislators would want to see how the appeal turns out.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said before the session started that he planned to introduce comprehensive school funding legislation this year, “something that’s a long-term vision for school finance in Colorado. … This would include a long-term plan for both funding and reform.”

About a month ago, during a talk to a school finance forum, Johnston reiterated his interest in proposing a bill (see story). He spoke shortly after the release of a paper on the issue by the Colorado School Finance Partnership, a group with which he’s been working (see story).

Asked Monday about his plans, Johnston said he’s still working on the issue. But he hinted that he might not have legislation ready for this year, given the complexity of the issue.

The legislative session has only three weeks more to run – lawmakers must adjourn no later than May 9 – leaving little time amid the crush of last-minute business for discussion of an issue as complex as school finance.

Scheduling McKinley’s bill for floor discussion will be up the the majority Republican leadership of the House. The bill is on Thursday’s calendar, but bills frequently are delayed.

checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”

new kids on the block

Meet the newly elected Indianapolis Public Schools board members

Three newcomers were elected Tuesday to the Indianapolis Public Schools board. From left: Susan Collins, Evan Hawkins, and Taria Slack.

In a shakeup of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, two challengers unseated incumbents in Tuesday’s election.

In all, three newcomers will join the school board: retired teacher Susan Collins, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, and federal employee Taria Slack.

Learn more about where the new school board members stand on issues such as the district’s budget woes, school closings, and innovation schools, from their responses to our candidate survey published last month.