Who Is In Charge

Finance bill gets a big tweak

This story was updated on March 22 to add additional information about the possible impacts of the amendment added Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill that proposes a major shift in the way Colorado funds K-12 education.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

But approval came only after passage of an amendment that increases the bill’s price tag by about 20 percent, an issue certain to be revisited when the bill reaches the Senate floor, which probably won’t happen until April Fool’s Day at the earliest.

Senate Bill 13-213 is in a situation much like a car that has had major work done in one body shop and now is being towed to another garage for more work.

The committee vote came at the end of the third meeting the panel has held this week on the measure, which is sponsored by Democratic committee members Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder. The bill is considered the most important education legislation of the 2013 session, and Johnston calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize how Colorado pays for it schools.

Johnston and Heath have been working on the bill for more than a year and have held scores of meetings with education interest groups and others to discuss the goals of the proposal.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed. (Friday is the deadline for ballot proposals to be filed.)

The central feature of the plan is a significant shift of funding to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. That would benefit districts like Denver and Aurora. Large districts with a lower concentration of such students, such as Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Jefferson County, would receive smaller increases in per-pupil funding.

That emerged as a major issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican members of Senate Education expressing worries about the bill’s impact on medium to large suburban districts with smaller concentrations of disadvantaged students.

That debate came to a head Thursday afternoon with an amendment proposed by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Her proposal was opposed by Johnston and Heath, but its passage probably ensured that the bill got out of committee.

Todd, a retired teacher and veteran legislator, said she was concerned by the “disparity” between districts like Aurora and Cherry Creek in the bill. “All districts have to feel like they’re coming away from the table with a win for their children.”

She proposed an amendment that essentially would bring such districts up to the statewide per-pupil average with a “bonus” payment every year, even if the bill’s formula set them at a lower amount. That would raise the estimated $950 million cost of the bill by an additional $220 million a year, according to Johnston. (However, the impact of the amendment hasn’t been fully calculated, and some observers think the cost could be different.)

The amendment would set a per-student “floor” of $7,495 for all districts, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, who has been following work on the bill.

Johnston opposed Todd’s amendment, but its passage might have been the price he had to pay to get the bill out of committee. “It would be very difficult for me to vote yes on the bill as it is now,” Todd said before the vote. Approving her amendment would “keep the conversation alive. … I want to get this bill out of committee.”

“The hard question is where we are you going to finding the $220 million,” Johnston said. Johnston and his allies have said the proposed ballot measure probably can’t exceed $1 billion and have a chance at voter approval.

Republicans voted yes before they voted no

Todd’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote, with Todd, chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and all four committee Republicans voting for it.

Those Republicans – Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker – essentially voted for the bill before they voted against it. By supporting the amendment they voted to make the bill richer than Johnston’s version. But they all were no votes on the final motion to send SB 13-213 to the Senate floor.

They cited concerns about the proposal’s costs and that it doesn’t contain enough “reform.” The bill was sent to the floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. That wasn’t necessarily a good sign for Johnston, who in the past has relied on GOP votes to pass such key measures as Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law.

There had been talk that the bill would be heard on the Senate floor Friday, but Johnston said senators need time to study it and that the bill won’t be debated until April 1 at the earliest. Fresh calculations of the district-by-district impacts of the amended bill aren’t expected until the middle of next week.

He also said, “Sen. Todd is going to have to help me think about how we balance the budget. I’ll sit down with Sen. Todd and figure out a compromise.”

If the bill passes on the Senate floor during the first week of April, it will face a tight timeline to get through the House, because the legislature has a drop-dead adjournment deadline of May 8.

A weird opening act

Before it even got to school finance, Senate Education burned up an hour on Senate Bill 13-201, which proposes to designate shelter dogs and cats as the official “state pets.”

The bill, proposed by a group of Walsenburg middle school students, follows a traditional pattern of students proposing state fossils or whatever. Such bills usually are feel-good measures that allows lawmakers to compliment students on their interest in the legislative process.

But SB 13-201, sponsored by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, actually had opposition.

Paid lobbyist Dan Anglin, representing the Colorado Association of Dog Clubs and the Colorado Pet Association (which includes pet stores), urging the committee to defeat the bill, saying it “discriminates” against pets available at outlets other than shelters.

The committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill on to the Senate floor.

Breakfast after the bell still alive

Speaking of feel-good bills, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal had its first Senate hearing Thursday in the health committee.

The bill, pushed by a variety of child health and other advocacy groups, proposes that all students in certain high-poverty schools be served free breakfast after school starts. Many school districts have complained that the bill could force startup costs on financially strapped schools, and the bill was amended in the House in an attempt to ease some of those worries. (See this story for further details.)

Those amendments apparently didn’t calm everyone’s fears, and a string of district nutrition directors urged the committee to make further modifications to the bill. The health panel didn’t amend the bill further. It passed on a narrow 4-3 vote.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: