From the Statehouse

School finance plan a tale of 178 districts

The proposed $950 million education tax hike is garnering broad support across Colorado’s education community. But because the plan affects school districts in so many different ways, the intensity of that support varies.

StockA66Logo92613“You almost have to take it district by district” to gauge the impact of Amendment 66 and its companion Senate Bill 13-213, said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of Schools Boards.

Despite those differences, many school administrators support the plan. Opinions vary more widely among school board members and candidates.

EdNews reviewed district-by-district projections compiled by legislative analysts and the Department of Education and interviewed education leaders around the state to develop a picture of how districts would be affected and how people are responding. The database that accompanies this article allows you to find the figures for individual districts.

Key features of the bill would change the state’s school funding formula to provide more support for full-day kindergarten and the state preschool program and to shift more support to at-risk students and English language learners, particularly in districts where such students are concentrated.

PLAN AT A GLANCE
Key features of SB213
  • Changes the current single-date enrollment count to a system called average daily membership, intended to provide more accurate student counts
  • Significant changes in the weights used to calculate individual district funding
  • Full funding of state program for at-risk preschoolers and for full-day kindergarten
  • Increased funding for charters
  • Somewhat more flexibility for principals in spending at-risk funds
  • $411 per student for districts to spend on reform implementation
  • Grant program to fund innovations and measures such as longer school days
  • More funding for special education and gifted and talented
  • Increased flexibility for districts in local tax increases
  • Detailed reports required on spending and effectiveness

Funding for some parts of the bill may fluctuate depending on actual revenues, and many observers think additional legislation will be needed to fine-tune the bill.

Legislative staff analysis

Key features of A66

  • Requires that 43 percent of state general fund revenues be devoted to P-12 education
  • Removes the requirement for annual inflationary increases from the constitution
  • Raises the individual income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000
  • Income above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent
  • Small business owners who file taxes as individuals would be affected

“Blue Book” explanation of A66

How at-risk funding works

Every district would receive at least 20 percent of the statewide base per pupil amount for every at-risk and ELL student on top of the regular funding for that student

Districts whose populations have more than the statewide average of at-risk or ELL students (43.8 percent) could receive up to 40 percent of the base per pupil amount

The definition of at-risk is expanded to include students eligible for reduced-price or free lunches, not just free lunch as is the case now

Students defined as both at-risk and ELL would be given double weight

Statewide average per-pupil funding would move from the current $6,652 to an estimated $7,426, an 11.6 percent increase for total annual spending of about $6.5 billion on basic school operating costs.

But that system won’t go into effect unless voters pass Amendment 66, which would raise state income tax rates to generate an estimated $950 million in the first year. That’s projected to rise to $1.01 billion in 2015-16, when the SB 13-213 formula would kick in. Another key provision of the amendment would require that 43 percent of annual state revenues from income, sales and excise taxes be devoted to P-12 education.

At the big-picture level, there are two important things to remember about SB 13-213 and Amendment 66. First, the new system would significantly increase funding for some districts and provide more modest growth for others. Second, the new revenue basically would restore overall state and local per-pupil funding to the level of 2009-10, the funding high point that came just before the recession and declining state revenues forced about $1 billion in cuts to school spending.

Differences in funding for individual school districts are nothing new. The current funding formula, in place for about 20 years, weights individual district funding based on size, cost of living for staff and numbers of at-risk students.

Per-pupil district funding ranges from a low of $6,205 to a high of $15,472.

The new system would change the current weights, restricting use of a size factor to smaller districts and eliminating the cost of living factor, which tended to benefit wealthier districts. Instead, the new system would increase aid to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. Under the new formula per-student funding would range from $6,608 to $19,597.

A story of four districts

A look at four Denver area districts illustrates the effect of the new formula.

In the Denver Public Schools, with 76.6 percent at-risk students, per-pupil funding would rise from $7,045 to $8,131, a 15.4 percent increase.

To the west, Jefferson County, with 36.4 percent of its students considered at-risk, would see per-pupil funding rise from the current $6,486 to $7,112, a 9.7 percent increase.

The current difference in funding between the two districts is $559 per student; it would rise to $1,019 under the new system.

Per-pupil funding in Aurora, with an at-risk population of 71.7, would rise from $6,933 to $8,104, a jump of 16.9 percent.

To the south, the Cherry Creek district has 27.5 percent of its students classified as at risk. Its current per-pupil funding $6,576 would rise to $7,016, an increase of 6.7 percent increase.

So the current $357 gap between Cherry Creek and Aurora would rise to $988.

(SB 13-213 defines at-risk as students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.)

Concerns about the impact of the original SB 13-213 led to several compromises as the bill moved through the legislature last spring, with the key amendments adding more money for some districts.

What people are saying

While those changes didn’t turn every district leader into an unabashed cheerleader for the new system, there is generally wide support for Amendment 66 among administrators, because it would increase P-12 funding overall and because many educators see it as the state’s best shot at recovering some of the cuts of recent years.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson summed up the feelings of many in a comment during a recent panel discussion at the University of Colorado Denver.

“Amendment 66 will make a difference. It will make a bigger difference for Denver,”  she said in response to a question. “Am I excited about that? No. Do I understand that? Yes.”

Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11, says he hears comments about funding differences from other districts. “My rebuttal to that is, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have 56 percent free and reduced lunch. You don’t have the challenges we do.” District 11’s per pupil funding would increase 9.1 percent under the plan.

Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Glenwood Springs-based Roaring Fork district, said she also hears varying degrees of support in different districts. “A lot of it is, ‘What’s in it for our district and our children?’” Roaring Fork would see a 4.6 percent per-pupil increase. Neighboring Aspen would have a 2.5 percent cut on a per-pupil basis.

The Roaring Fork board recently endorsed Amendment 66, while the Aspen board is staying neutral.

This issue also has cropped up on the school board campaign trail.

During a recent candidate forum in Jefferson County, candidate Jeff Lamontagne said, “Schools in Colorado have been underfunded for a long time.” But he added, “As I go door to door I do hear concerns and questions” about how the new system would affect different districts.

His opponent, John Newkirk, said, “I would prefer that any money raised in Jeffco should stay in Jeffco. As written I oppose Amendment 66.”

Feelings about Amendment 66 seem to vary more widely among school board members, who as elected officials are sensitive to community divisions over the proposed tax increase.

“The mood is hesitancy and ambivalence,” said Urschel. “A lot of [boards] will perhaps not bring it to a vote.”

Chart“The majority of rural boards are staying neutral,” said Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus. “I think it’s a difficult issue for everyone.” The caucus steering committee, however, voted Friday to endorse the amendment.

Boards in some larger urban districts have endorsed Amendment 66, including Denver and Aurora. The Boulder board also endorsed the proposal – but on a split 4-3 vote – while the neighboring St. Vrain board supported it unanimously. The Douglas County board opposes the amendment, and the Jeffco board hasn’t considered the issue. Cherry Creek has decided to remain neutral.

Among many school administrators there’s a feeling that SB 13-213 and Amendment 66 offer an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

“Is it perfect? No, but it is way, way better than the alternative,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough.

Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper noted districts “have had different perspectives on some aspects of the amendment or Senate Bill 213 [but] we shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the better. … We’re not going to ever get to perfect.”

In the weeds on SB 13-213

Calculations are tricky

The per-pupil funding figures in this article provide estimates for comparison, and figures likely be different in 2015-16 when SB 13-213 would go into effect if Amendment 66 passes.

In some cases districts whose per-pupil funding would decline actually would see increases in what’s called Total Program Funding. That’s because of complex interactions between projected preschool and kindergarten growth and the weights used to give some small districts more money. In many instances districts have local tax overrides that provide funding not reflected in these figures.

SB 13-213 also proposes some additional funding, such as nearly $190 million for special education that could increase district revenues. However, the total for special education is dependent on the actual revenues generated by the amendment if it passes.

If you’re really curious about how the bill works, this CDE spreadsheet walks through the calculations for every district. It’s complicated – each district’s entry runs for 237 lines in the spreadsheet. See also this CDE primer on SB 13-213.

Recovering what was lost

As noted above, many district leaders support Amendment 66 partly because it would restore the estimated $1 billion in school funding lost during the recession and the resulting state budget cuts.

Average statewide per-pupil funding was $7,242 in 2009-10, the high-point budget year before the recession’s effects hit. SB 13-213 would provide a 2.5 percent increase.

But the effects would be uneven for individual districts, with some growing beyond 2009-10 levels and others not recovering what was lost. That’s because the SB 13-213 formula is different than the one used to allocated funds in the past.

Different funding for different districts

The first version of SB 13-213 would have cut funding for some districts because of the shift of resources to early education and to at-risk and ELL students. A series of three key compromises during legislative debates adjusted the bill’s formula to increase funding for the following districts. Based on how the new formulas applied to them, some districts received more than one kind of additional revenue.

Hold harmless funding – $37 million

Agate, Arikaree, Aspen, Bayfield, Campo, Cheyenne (Cheyenne County), Clear Creek, Cripple Creek, DeBeque, Durango, Gilpin, Hanover, Ignacio, Kim, Kit Carson, Norwood, Ouray, Parachute, Plateau, Platte Canyon, Primero, Rangely, Ridgway, Steamboat Springs and Telluride

Floor funding – $117 million

Academy, Adams 12-Five Star, Bayfield, Boulder, Branson, Brighton, Buena Vista, Cherry Creek, Cheyenne Mountain, Delta, Douglas, Durango, Elizabeth, Falcon, Florence, Fountain, Gunnison, Jefferson, Johnstown, Keenesburg, Lewis-Palmer, Littleton, Mesa Valley, Parachute, Poudre, Pueblo County, Rangely, St. Vrain, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Thompson, Widefield, Windsor and Woodland Park

Supplemental funding for at-risk students – $28.1 million

Adams 12-Five Star, Bayfield, Brighton, Buena Vista, Delta, Florence, Fountain, Jefferson, Johnstown, Keenseburg, Mesa Valley, Parachute, Pueblo County, St. Vrain, Salida, Thompson, Widefield and Woodland Park

Leaving money on the table?

SB 13-213 creates a formula for determining how much each district “should” contribute to total costs through its property taxes and how much the state should be responsible for. The formula uses property values, income of district residents and percentages of at-risk students.

Under that calculation, many districts are currently raising less local revenue than they could – about $81.8 million statewide. SB 13-213 does not reduce the amount of state money to such districts, but they theoretically could spend more money on their students – if voters approved local tax-rate increases.

The per-pupil figures in this article and the accompanying database are based on current levels of district support and would be higher if all districts paid their full local amounts. With full district support the average statewide per-pupil funding is estimated at $7,522.

The affected districts are:

Aguilar, Akron, Arikaree, Ault-Highland, Bayfield, Bennett, Bethune, Branson, Briggsdale, Burlington, Byers, Campo, Cheyenne (Cheyenne County), Colorado Springs 11, Cripple Creek, Crowley, DeBeque, Delta, Dolores (Dolores County), Dolores (Montezuma County), Durango, Eads, Eagle, Elbert, Falcon, Florence, Fountain, Fort Lupton, Gilpin, Gunnison, Hanover, Harrison, Hayden, Hi Plains, Hoehne, Idalia, Ignacio, Johnstown, Keenesburg, Kim, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Lamar, Lewis-Palmer, Liberty, Limon, McClave, Mancos, Manitou Springs, Manzanola, Mesa Valley, Miami-Yoder, Montrose, Mountain Valley, North Conejos, North Park, Norwood, Ouray, Parachute, Pawnee, Peyton, Plainview, Plateau, Plateau Valley, Platte Canyon, Platte Valley (Sedgwick County), Prairie, Primero, Pritchett, Rangely, Ridgway, Rifle, Roaring Fork, St. Vrain, Salida, Silverton, Steamboat Springs, Swink, Telluride, Thompson, Walsh, West End, Widefield, Woodland Park, Woodlin and Wray

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.

They’re conducting 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,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked 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 $400,000 price tag 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 that hasn’t been functional for years.

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