School Finance

Compact model of school finance plan still in the shop

A stripped-down version of last year’s school finance overhaul may soon join the growing line of bills that hope to tap a one-time surplus of K-12 funding.

But that proposal may face resistance from groups that want to increase basic school funding, not pay for new programs, and it may conflict with plans to save some surplus funds for the future.

Sen. Mike Johnston’s Senate Bill 13-213 didn’t go into effect because voters subsequently defeated Amendment 66, the ballot measure that would have paid for it. So the Denver Democrat now is scavenging parts of that plan to build a smaller model he hopes to sell to the 2014 legislature.

Johnston said last week that the bill could be introduced within a few weeks, but the timetable likely depends on how much support Johnston can gather. The bill’s contents are a moving target, and some influential interest groups that have kicked the tires aren’t impressed. Negotiations are continuing.

On the other hand, taking the bill public soon may be necessary to give Johnston’s ideas visibility in the discussion over how to use what could be as much as $1 billion available in the State Education Fund (SEF), an account that’s dedicated to K-12 spending.

“We need to make our case in the midst of all the other education debate,” said Johnston, who is working on the bill with Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

Six bills with a combined draw on the SEF of $40 million already have been introduced. Another 10 bills without specific price tags also are in the mix, including potentially expensive plans to expand full-day kindergarten and broaden services for English language learners.

The 2013 coalition is fraying

Johnston’s SB 13-213 and A66 were a big political compromise intended to unite various education interests, from reform groups to school districts, because the $1 billion in new income tax revenue would have paid for some initiatives reformers wanted and for partial restoration of recent years’ budget cuts, something districts wanted. (Refresh your memory on the details in this story from the Chalkbeat Colorado archives.)

Since there’s now no new money for anybody, jockeying for what funding is available has intensified competition among interest groups, and all eyes are focused on the SEF.

The fund is more flush than it’s been in years, primarily because a 2012 law put $1.1 billion in state surpluses into the SEF. Legislative economists project the SEF will contain about $2 billion when the 2014-15 budget year starts next July 1. Some $850 million already is scheduled to be spent, leaving a balance of just under $1.2 billion when the 2014-15 year ends.

Executive branch economists in the Office of State Planning and Budgeting take a more conservative view, estimating there will be $1.6 billion in the SEF at start of 2014-15, $887 million in planned spending and a $712 million ending balance.

Whatever the number, it’s a tempting target for lawmakers, even it’s one-time money, unlike the $1 billion-plus that A66 would have generated for schools every year.

Johnston-Hamner bill would combine key initiatives

While other legislators are proposing individual dips into that pot, Johnston is working to assemble a plan that would combine several spending programs in a single bill.

Those ideas are downsized versions of some programs and spending proposed in SB 13-213, leading some statehouse observers to dub the new measure “Son of 213.” Its reported formal working title is the Student Success Act.

“We have some concepts out there,” Johnston said, without going into details. He noted he’s looking for Republican support for the bill. (Republican lawmakers, Johnston allies on previous education bills, abandoned him last year over SB 13-213 because they opposed the tax increase.)

According to several people familiar with the discussions, the following elements are being considered for inclusion in the bill. The cost is estimated at $230 to $250 million, about half in one-time spending and half in recurring annual costs. As with the elements, the cost is a moving target.

  • Increased kindergarten funding – The bill may include $100 million to increase state reimbursement for kindergarten students as an incentive to expand full-day programs. (Kindergarten reportedly has replaced increased preschool funding as a priority in an effort to gain GOP support.)
  • Reform implementation – Also under consideration is $100 million for districts to help them pay for implementation of new standards, tests and educator evaluations.
  • Early literacy – Districts also could receive $20 million to help fund implementation of the 2012 READ, which requires students to be reading at grade level by the time they enter fourth grade.
  • English language learners – The measure may include $15 million for expansion of services to these students.
  • Enrollment counting – Conversion to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment could get $10 million for technology costs.
  • Financial transparency – Districts also could receive $5 million for the costs of improved spending reporting to the public.
  • Charter school construction – Also under consideration is providing an additional $20-$25 million to charter schools for facilities needs.

Republican lawmakers already have introduced individual bills related to kindergarten funding, English language learners, enrollment counting, financial transparency and charter construction needs. While those bills are unlikely to pass on their own in the Democratic-majority General Assembly, including those issues in his bill could give Johnston a lever to gain some GOP support.

Districts push back on earmarked funding

Plans to dip into the SEF face two big hurdles.

The first is the push by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association to reduce the “negative factor,” the formula used by the legislature to reduce annual school funding from how the state funding formula otherwise would have calculated it. It’s a device used to balance the overall state budget.

Wish list for SEFVarious bills propose to tap the fund to pay for such things as:
  • Data upgrades
  • ECE quality improvement
  • Charter facilities
  • Teacher bonuses
  • Gifted & talented
  • Financial transparency
  • Full-day kindergarten
  • School meals
  • Enrollment count system
  • ELL program expansion

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s revised 2014-15 budget proposal calls for $5.7 billion in K-12 spending, including $3.78 billion in state funds. That would be a $241.1 million increase over this school year. On top of that districts would receive $276.7 million in what’s called categorical funding, money that’s earmarked for ELL students, special education, transportation and certain other costs.

The current negative factor is estimated at $1.004 billion. The governor’s budget would take it to about $1.002 billion next year.

In the wake of A66’s defeat, district interests are pushing hard to use any extra money to “buy down” the negative factor and not to fund new programs like Johnston is proposing.

The school boards group is pushing for a buy down of at least $100 million, and the Denver Area Superintendents Council is suggesting a $275 million increase in school spending, most of it to reduce the negative factor and some of it to increase support for at-risk students. A newly formed group of high-poverty districts also may push for additional at-risk funding.

Without some movement on the negative factor, key education interest groups are highly skeptical about Johnston’s bill-in-progress. District lobbyists say they aren’t getting much sympathy about the negative factor from Democratic leaders, at least in the House.

Spend now or spend later?

The second hurdle to big raids on the SEF is the desire by the Hickenlooper administration and legislative budget writers to maintain a healthy balance in the fund as a cushion against education spending needs in future years, especially if the economy takes a downturn.

K-12 schools are funded by a combination of money from the SEF and the state’s main General Fund. If the schools spending base is increased, even if that initially comes from the education fund, the General Fund bears most of the burden in future budget years. That’s because the state constitution requires base funding to increase by enrollment and inflation every year.

SEF primer

The administration would like to leave a balance of about $700 million in the SEF at the end of 2014-15, letting it decline to $400 million at the end of 2017-18. (In addition to the one-time infusion of cash, the SEF receives an annual share of income tax revenues totaling more than $500 million a year.) Keeping a healthy balance in the education fund allows budget writers to reduce the pressure of K-12 spending on the General Fund.

So lawmakers face a three competing interests when they consider school funding this session – new programs, reducing the negative factor and saving for future education costs.

The riddle likely won’t be answered until April, after new state revenue forecasts are issued in late March, after the main state budget bill firms up and after legislative leaders choose the winners from among all the new spending bills proposed by lawmakers, both for education and other state programs.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.

School Finance

IPS bid for more money is ‘the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever,’ state official says

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry raised concerns about referendums IPS plans to ask voters to approve in May.

An Indiana education official is calling out Indianapolis Public Schools for how the district has handled a recent proposal to collect almost $1 billion from taxpayers over the next eight years.

Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education and an Indianapolis resident, said the district’s plan to ask voters this May to approve two referendums to increase funding has not been transparent. The proposed tax increase is also way too high, he said.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” Hendry, a Democrat, said Wednesday at the board’s February meeting.

So far, few education advocates or community organizations have been vocal in their support for the referendums, which total $936 million. Voters have raised concerns about the amount their taxes would increase and how the money would be spent.

The district has said one referendum would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for teacher raises, special education services, transportation and regular maintenance. The other asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

Hendry said the district has not provided voters with enough information about what the new money would be used for, instead offering “general statements.” He said he thinks the district should already be able to cover those costs, such as transportation and facilities, with its existing state and local funding.

“Our entire state budget for education is $7 billion each year,” he said.

IPS, like other districts, receives state, local, and federal dollars. Hendry pointed out that under Indiana’s school funding formula, urban districts already receive more money per-student than other districts, although that is supposed to support students who might be more costly to educate than those in suburban or rural districts. Urban schools typically have more students living in poverty, learning English or with disabilities.

The referendums would come with considerable tax increases for those living within IPS boundaries, Hendry said, and would disproportionately affect low-income families.

Hendry didn’t limit his criticisms to IPS. He urged Indiana lawmakers to freeze all school funding referendums and set up a committee this summer to study how to improve the efficiency of district spending, as well as how to address “long-standing” problems with ensuring teachers are adequately paid.

Going forward, Hendry said referendums need more oversight. He proposed that the state board or mayors and city councils should approve them — a measure he said would increase accountability.

More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases since state lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2008. About 60 percent of them have been successful, including six in Marion County.