School Finance

School finance on the brain

Colorado legislators got hit from two sides Wednesday on one of the Capitol’s toughest and most complicated issues – school finance.

Volunteers prepare packets for delivery to lawmakers on Jan. 30.
Volunteers prepare packets for delivery to lawmakers on Jan. 30. <em>Year of the Student photo</em>

First, all 100 lawmakers were targets of a “meet-and-greet” blitz by volunteers from the Year of the Student Coalition, a grass-roots effort that’s putting pressure on the legislature to deal this year with school funding shortfalls.

Second, the 22 members of the House and Senate education committees got yet another briefing on the knotty financial issues they’ll have to help decide, this time from members of the Joint Budget Committee, the six people in the General Assembly who know the most about state spending.

Green T-shirts flood the Capitol

Year of the Student is an effort to persuade lawmakers “to use this session to address Colorado’s long-time failure to fund its schools, colleges and universities,” in the words of a coalition news release.

Started by Great Education Colorado, a school-funding advocacy group, the coalition now involves more than 150 organizations and has gathered more than 9,000 petition signatures, according to the group.

More than 100 volunteers clad in bright green T-shirts fanned out in the Capitol Wednesday morning to deliver information packets to all 100 lawmakers. The packets included letters asking lawmakers where they stand on adequacy of school funding, their willingness to explore all financing options and whether they agree the issue should be handled this year. Legislator responses will be published on the coalition’s website next month.

“This is just the beginning, but it’s a very good beginning,” said Lisa Weil, Great Education policy director. The coalition plans to follow up with a mid-February briefing for lawmakers.

Big funding issues laid out

Whether they address the adequacy of school funding or not, lawmakers will have to pass a bill this session to provide K-12 funding for the 2013-14 school year.

The House and Senate education committees will play central roles in crafting that bill, and members were briefed Wednesday on the key issues they face, which include:

Source of money: There’s an issue about whether funding increases next year should be paid out of the state’s general fund or from the State Education Fund, a dedicated account that can be used only for educational purposes. Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to rely on the education fund, but some lawmakers don’t want to drain that account.

JBC chair Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, noted the legislature will have the final say regardless of the governor’s proposal. “That’s a policy decision that will be made by the Joint Budget Committee and the General Assembly.”

Repairing the damage: Budget cuts in recent years have slashed an estimated $1 billion from what schools otherwise would have received. Hickenlooper’s plan makes up only a small amount of loss, and some lawmakers are talking about trying to do more.

Early childhood funding: Hickenlooper wants districts to devote about $30 million of the proposed increase to specific programs, mostly to early childhood spending. Several lawmakers are skeptical about telling districts what to do. “If we’re going to do this we should give the districts the control to do with the dollars as they want,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and a JBC member.

A recent law called the SMART Government Act requires legislative committees to make recommendations to the JBC about the proposed budgets for various state departments.

The House and Senate education committees have decided not to do that, noting that school funding is a special case and that recommendations can’t be made until later in the session.

“Since there are so many moving targets we decided not to make any recommendations at this point,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and chair of Senate Education.

The biggest moving targets include setting an inflation rate for 2013-14, a key part of the school finance formula. That forecast won’t be made until next month. Another key shoe to drop will be the next state revenue forecasts, which won’t be issued until March 18.

Don’t forget about the other school finance bill

Dealing with the annual school finance act is hard enough, but this year the legislature likely also will face a proposal to modernize the formula used to distribute school funding. It could be the year of two school finance bills.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is pushing that effort and wants to get a bill passed by mid-March. Given that timeline, there’s been a lot of speculation about when a bill will surface.

Johnston indicated Wednesday it could be another couple of weeks before that happens.

His strategy is to gain as much support for the bill as possible ahead of time in order to minimize extensive arguments over amendments after the bill is introduced.

Johnston has been making his case to groups around the state for months, but he’s got some key meetings on his calendar in the near future.

He was to meet with a group of school district finance officers Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to speak Friday to a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He’s also planning to make the case for his ideas to the Feb. 14-15 winter legislative conference of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

CASE and CASB are key constituencies to convince if a funding system overhaul is to be successful.

Whenever the bill is ready, it’s going to be a head-hurter for lawmakers. He estimated it will run to more than 100 pages. Johnston’s Senate Bill 10-191, the landmark and controversial educator effectiveness law, was a mere 33 pages long.

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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.