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.

Controversy

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.