School Finance

School finance bills cross finish line

The Senate on Wednesday evening accepted House amendments and re-passed two major school finance bills, one to fund K-12 education in 2013-14 and another that proposes to modernize the entire system of paying for education.

Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Senate Bill 13-260, next year’s $5.5 billion finance bill, passed 23-12. Senate Bill 13-213, dubbed the “future school finance act,” received a 20-15 vote, with all Republicans voting no.

The next and perhaps the crucial test for Senate Bill 13-213 could come in November, when voters may have the chance to decide whether to raise income taxes by about $1 billion to pay for the new system. The bill won’t go into effect if voters don’t approve higher taxes.

There was no discussion on either bill, not even final pitches for SB 13-213 by Democratic sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver and Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder.

In contrast to the budget cuts of the last four years, SB 13-260 provides an increase of 2.7 percent in average per-pupil funding. Total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, an increase of about $210 million. Average per pupil funding would move up from the current $6,479 to $6,652. The bill also provides additional funding for the Colorado Preschool Program and for special education. (Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff note.)

Next year’s school funding is 15.49 percent lower than it would have been without use of what’s called the negative factor, a mechanism that allows lawmakers to set school funding at an amount necessary to balance the overall state budget.

Give the recent healthy increases in state revenues, some education interest groups lobbied for even higher 2013-14 funding in an effort to further reduce the estimated $1 billion shortfall created by use of the negative factor in recent years. There also was some argument about whether the negative factor was being calculated properly. Legislative leaders were resistant to those pleas, arguing that recent revenue increases were largely one-time.

SB 13-213 would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates. (Get details in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The details of the ballot measure needed to trigger SB 13-213 remain unclear. A total of 20 different measures have been proposed by two advocacy groups, one from the business community and one that’s education related. Tax-increase advocates are expected to decide later this month on a single proposal to take to the signature-gathering process, although there remains some disagreement about whether to go to the ballot this year.

Little love for energy-efficient schools bill

Sen. Andy Kerr’s energy-efficient schools bill stayed alive Wednesday, but only after a crucial section of Senate Bill 13-279 was amputated by the House Education Committee.

The bill is the latest version of an idea the Lakewood Democrat has been pushing unsuccessfully for years – requiring new school buildings to meet energy efficiency standards.

As it currently stands, the bill would require new schools built after next Jan. 1 and renovations involving more than 50 percent of an existing building meet “the highest energy efficiency standards practicable.”

The bill has been opposed by school district lobbyists because of the potential extra costs and what district’s see as the bill’s infringement on local control. One particularly disliked provision of the original bill required districts to pay outside experts to verify the energy efficiency of new buildings.

The committee Wednesday unanimously adopted an amendment to remove outside verification from the bill. Amendments to exempt charter schools from the requirements and to make the whole measure voluntary were defeated by the committee’s Democratic majority. The measure then passed on a 7-6 party-line vote.

The committee’s action didn’t silence the critics, and there are likely to be House floor fights over amendments on charter schools, making the program voluntary and over the definition of “practicable.” It’s also possible the issue of outside verification will come up again.

With the 2013 session required to adjourn next Wednesday, SB 13-279 also faces the possibility of “dying on the calendar,” meaning the bill dies if the House and Senate don’t agree on amendments before the final gavel falls.

The hearing, probably the committee’s last meeting of the 2013 session, provided a rare example of the “reluctant sponsor.” Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, is carrying the bill in the House and made it pretty clear that she’s doing so out of respect for Kerr rather than because she’s enthusiastic about the idea.

“I believe Sen. Kerr has very good intentions in this,” she said at one point. “I’m conflicted about all his … no bill is perfect. This one has particular challenges, and I’m glad I don’t have to vote on it.” Gerou is an architect and knows a thing or two about building standards.

Incentives for AP tests trimmed

At the same time Wednesday morning the Senate Education Committee had its own go-round with a bill that raised lots of questions but passed anyway.

House Bill 13-1056 is a bipartisan measure that proposes to expand availability of Advanced Placement classes and tests in small rural school districts by offering per-student bonuses to districts that expand AP offerings and to students who take the tests.

The bill has raised questions about its cost and about the fairness of providing bonuses to only some districts.

The committee approved an amendment reducing the bonus amounts but rejected a change that would have paid students for passing the AP tests, not just for taking them. The measure next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where its cost (now somewhere below $500,000) could make it vulnerable.

Also crossing the finish line

The House Wednesday accepted Senate amendments and re-passed three education bills, including:

House Bill 13-1117 – This bill is a Hickenlooper administration priority and would consolidate various early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services. Passed 39-25.

House Bill 13-1194 – The measure expands eligibility for resident tuition rates to certain military dependents. Passed 64-0.

House Bill 13-1005 – This proposal allows the community college system to create pilot, relatively short programs that combine adult basic education and vocational training programs. Passed 45-19.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.

turnover

The principal of Denver’s South High School is leaving due to health concerns

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
South High Principal Jen Hanson will not return this fall.

The principal of Denver’s second-largest school, South High, has said she won’t return this fall. In a letter to families, Jen Hanson cited “personal health concerns” as the reason for her departure.

“It greatly saddens me to write this,” Hanson said in the letter, dated June 18. “A strong school is never about the leader but the staff and students inside who make it thrive, and that is South.”

Denver Public Schools has named Bobby Thomas the interim principal for the 2018-19 school year. Thomas has been principal of a small alternative high school in southwest Denver called Summit Academy for six years, according to a separate letter from the district.

The letter says the district will work with the South community to choose a permanent principal for the 2019-20 school year.

South has been on an upward trajectory for the 2½ years Hanson has been at the helm. The letter lists several bright spots, including a rising graduation rate, the second-highest college matriculation rate in the district, and being named a “School of Opportunity” by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado – an accomplishment that netted South some positive press in the Washington Post.

The award was based on South’s success in educating all students, regardless of their background. South is a district “newcomer center” for refugee and immigrant students from more than 50 countries. A book published last year by Denver journalist Helen Thorpe follows the lives of 22 immigrant teenagers there. In 2016, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai made a surprise appearance at the school.

Almost 70 percent of the 1,600 students at South this past year were students of color, and more than half were from low-income families. Hanson’s letter notes that the number of students of color taking college-level classes at South increased from 72 in 2016 to 592 in 2018, one of the reasons cited by researchers in naming it a “School of Opportunity.”

In January 2017, shortly after President Trump announced a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee program, South invited local journalists to speak to a group of students in the library. Seated in a semi-circle, the students talked about how South was a safe and welcoming place.

“Even if you are a minority student or a student who’s being targeted by politicians or told you don’t have a right to be here, we want you here at South,” said then-senior Cherokee Ronolo-Valdez, who was born and raised in Denver.

In her letter, Hanson said she knows South will continue to distinguish itself locally and nationally. “South is truly the epitome of what a public school can and should be,” she said.

The district’s letter says interim principal Thomas has family ties to South: his wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law are alumni of the school. It also points to Thomas’s track record, noting that he oversaw the improvement of Summit Academy from a low-rated school to a high-rated one. (The district’s school ratings are largely based on test scores.)

Summit assistant principal Juan Osorio will take over as principal there, district officials said.

The letter says South families should expect more information in the fall about the process of choosing a permanent principal. The district is also still searching for a permanent principal for another of its high-profile schools, Manual High School in northeast Denver.