From the Statehouse

School finance bill blank filled in

The fast-tracked 2013-14 school funding bill started the day as something of a mystery, but it emerged from the Senate Education Committee in a fairly familiar form.

Senate Education Committee
Members of the Senate Education Committee huddle before tackling amendments to the annual school finance bill.

The committee voted 8-1 to advance Senate Bill 13-260. The measure proposes some $5.5 billion in total program funding, the combination of state and local money used to pay basic school operating costs. That’s an increase of about $200 million over this year’s level.

That amount is pretty close to what Gov. John Hickenlooper suggested in the 2013-14 budget proposal he made last November. School districts and some legislators welcomed additional money but weren’t enthusiastic about some of the details.

As passed by Senate Education, SB 13-260 preserves two of Hickenlooper’s key proposals – an increase in preschool spending and the creation of a new program to recruit teachers for rural schools. While the governor proposed paying for those programs by shifting money from other school spending, the finance bill funds them with new money.

School districts welcomed the additional funding but said they wish the bill did more.

“We’re basically just opposed to any of these new programs,” said Dale McCall, lobbyist for the association representing boards of cooperative educational services. “What we need is money in the formula.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the improved state revenue picture means, “We’re able to reinvest in public education once again. We’re no longer making cuts and instead we’re restoring cuts. … We really have turned a corner.” Steadman is chair of the Joint Budget Committee and a prime sponsor of SB 13-260. The other prime sponsor is Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and chair of Senate Education.

The bill was only introduced late Tuesday, and had a blank space where the total program funding number was supposed to be. That was because lawmakers, executive branch officials and staff were still trying to reach agreement on how much money they could afford to put into school funding. The figure was added through an amendment passed by the committee.

A key issue for school districts was how much the bill would reduce the “negative factor,” the formula the legislature uses in tight-budget years to reduce school funding to an amount the state can afford. It’s estimated the negative factor has cut school spending by more than $1 billion below what it would have been otherwise in the last four years. SB13-260 cuts the negative factor by about $35 million, Steadman said, compared to a $30 million reduction in the governor’s original plan.

A brief flurry of worry over BEST

A hidden land mine in the introduced version of the bill was a provision that would have cut the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program out of revenues from state energy development leases on the old Lowry Bombing Range southeast of Denver.

That would have cost BEST revenues about $68 million over five years, particularly restricting the smaller cash grants the board awards for school renovations. “It effectively would shut us down this year,” said Dave Van Sant, chair of the Capital Construction Assistance Board.

The problem was solved later in the meeting when the committee voted 9-0 to pass an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. The amendment removed the restrictions on Lowry revenues.

Top provisions in the school finance bill

Beyond total program funding and the BEST issue, here are the key elements of the bill:

• Creation of 3,200 more openings in the Colorado Preschool Program, which covers at-risk students. Current enrollment is about 23,360. Districts could use the funding for half- or full-day slots or for full-day kindergarten. The cost is about $11 million. The bill also proposes another $5 million for preschool quality improvement.

• Funding to hire an outside contractor –Teach for America is believed to be an interested party — to create a high-quality teacher recruitment program for rural districts. This is a revision of another Hickenlooper idea, which originally would have taken $3 million from other district funds.

• A $20 million increase in funding for special education. This will help districts that currently have to divert money from their general funds to special education in order to meet federal requirements.

• An increase of $1 million on top of the $6 million that charter schools receive as partial reimbursement for facilities costs. The bill proposed a one-year increase, but a successful amendment by Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, would make that a continuing increase.

Other provisions of the bill

• Allocation of $200,000 for the State Council on Educator Effectiveness, which advises the Department of Education on implementation of the state’s principal and teacher evaluation law.

• An appropriation of $1.3 million to pay stipends for teachers who hold national board certifications. The program has existed for some time but hasn’t been funded in recent years.

• Spending of $16 million for implementation of the 2012 READ Act, which is intended to improve literacy among K-3 students.

• An amendment added Thursday would provide an extra $1 million for facilities schools, which serve students in detention and treatment facilities.

The bill’s increases would be paid for out of the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used for school spending. The bill would spend about $720 million out of the fund. Steadman says the JBC hopes about $725 million will be left in the fund at the end of the 2013-14 budget year. The administration and the JBC, concerned that recent growth in state revenues has been fueled by one-time gains, are trying to keep a healthy balance in the fund for use in future.

The bill goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee, probably next Wednesday, before full Senate floor consideration.

BEST oversight bill passes

More homework

Before digging into school finance, the committee considered Senate Bill 13-214, which tweaks the oversight of the BEST program. The measure passed 9-0.

The program, funded by revenues for state school lands, provides matching funds for lease-purchase agreements that pay for new schools and other large projects and also gives cash grants for smaller renovation projects.

Currently, grants are recommended by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board and approved by the State Board of Education.

The bill would require final review by the legislature’s Capital Development Committee and also require the BEST board to maintain an annual reserve sufficient to cover payments on lease-purchase agreements, something it’s already been doing informally.

Some committee members wondered about the need for the bill. Van Sant said it will help ease “a perception problem” among the program among some legislators.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

awarding leaders

Meet the nine finalists for Tennessee Principal of the Year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's 2016 principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis. This year's winner will be announced in October.

Nine school leaders are up for an annual statewide award, including one principal from Memphis.

Tracie Thomas, a principal at White Station Elementary School, represents schools in Shelby County on the state’s list of finalists. Last year, Principal Docia Generette-Walker of Middle College High School in Memphis received the honor.

Building better principals has been a recent focus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as roles of the school leaders change under school improvement efforts.

“Successful schools begin with great leaders, and these nine finalists represent some of the best in our state,” McQueen said. “The Principal of the Year finalists have each proven what is possible when school leaders hold students and educators to high expectations.”

The winner will be announced at the state department’s annual banquet in October, where the winner of Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will also be announced.

The finalists are:

West Tennessee

  • Tracie Thomas, White Station Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Stephanie Coffman, South Haven Elementary, Henderson County School District
  • Linda DeBerry, Dyersburg City Primary School, Dyersburg City Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Kenneth “Cam” MacLean, Portland West Middle School, Sumner County Schools
  • John Bush, Marshall County High School, Marshall County Schools
  • Donnie Holman, Rickman Elementary School, Overton County Schools

East Tennessee

  • Robin Copp, Ooltewah High School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Jeff Harshbarger, Norris Middle School, Anderson County Schools
  • Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary School, Johnson City Schools