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Superintendents draw line on school funding

A letter signed by 171 of the state’s 178 school superintendents calls for the legislature to more than double the proposed increase in next year’s state funding for K-12 education.

The superintendents are asking lawmakers to add $275 million to the $241 million that the proposed budget allocates for the 2014-15 school year.

The letter, sent Tuesday to Gov. John Hickenlooper and all 100 legislators, specifically asks that lawmakers “buy down” the negative factor by that amount. The negative factor is the device lawmakers use to reduce school funding from what otherwise would have been required by state funding formulas.

Districts, administrators and teacher groups have been pushing hard during this legislative session to reduce the negative factor and to oppose funding earmarked for specific education programs.

The superintendents’ letter represents a ramping up of that effort.

Hickenlooper’s proposed $5.7 billion K-12 budget for 2014-15 basically makes no dent in the negative factor, now estimated at $1 billion. And a large number of bills proposing earmarked spending already have been introduced in the legislative.

The superintendents’ letter doesn’t reference earmarked spending, but it does request a meeting with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders. The letter also suggests that an unspecified amount of the $275 million be devoted to increasing support for at-risk students.

Discussions among superintendents and other education groups have stepped up in the last couple of weeks. Superintendents met with a group of lawmakers late last week, and the negative factor was the top issue discussed during a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives last Friday.

“We understand that you can’t get a billion back in one year,” Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger told that group. Messinger said  that the growing pressure for $275 million means that “both parties are paying attention to this conversation…I don’t think it’s impossible” to persuade the legislature. Messinger is one of the leaders of the superintendents’ group.

Lobbyists and others connected to the effort also say they feel lawmakers are paying more attention to the issue than they were earlier in the session, when legislative leaders reportedly were cool to the idea of buying down the negative factor.

But advocates still face challenges in making their case.

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was among lawmakers who met with superintendents last week. “We’re certainly going to look at doing something [about the negative factor], but certainly nothing anywhere near the amount the superintendents are proposing,” he told Chalkbeat Colorado.

Attempts to reduce the negative factor also conflict with Hickenlooper administration budgetary goals, including increasing the state reserves, paying back some cash funds the legislature “borrowed” from in prior years and maintaining a healthy balance in the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used to supplement basic school support and also fund special programs.

And Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a leading figure on education policy, also has designs on any extra education money that may be lying around, working with Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. He’s been working on a bill that would increase funding for kindergarten and English language learners and well as provide money for changing the state’s enrollment counting method, school district financial reporting and implementation of education reform laws. (See this story for more details.)

It’s likely the school funding debate won’t play out until late March, after quarterly state revenue forecasts are issued and when the main state budget and annual school funding bills are being finalized.

Rising frustration about the negative factor also reporting has revived discussions among some superintendents and lawyers about a possible lawsuit challenging use of the device. A possible legal theory behind a suit is that the factor violates Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by inflation and enrollment every year.

Those involved in those discussions are reluctant to talk about them, as those pushing for reduction of the negative factor are primarily interested right now in reaching some agreement with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders.

Read the superintendents’ letter here.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

State takeover plans for Gary and Muncie could be revived as Indiana lawmakers return in May

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed reporters Monday. He's asking lawmakers to return for a special session in May.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse this May after an unusual summons Monday from Gov. Eric Holcomb, and it’s possible they could revisit a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

But Holcomb said the takeover plan should not be pushed through during a special session and should be acted upon next year. It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers held a special session in a non-budget year.

“I would prefer to wait,” Holcomb said. “I don’t believe that it rises to the level of urgency to be dealt with right now.”

The regular legislative session ended in chaos last week, with lawmakers leaving this and several other important bills unresolved when the clock ran out.

Republican lawmakers have been largely supportive of the takeover plan, and so they could revive the issue despite Holcomb’s stance. Holcomb said discussions would happen this week over what issues could be addressed during the special session.

House Bill 1315 sparked heated debate right up until the final minutes of the 2018 legislative session. The bill would have given control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and stripped power from the Gary school board. Another part of the bill would have developed an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

On Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill was one of the important issues left on the table when the legislature had to adjourn.

But Senate President David Long also noted that the bill has been massively unpopular in some circles — Democrats were strongly opposed to it, as were teachers unions and some educators and community members.

Both Republican leaders said in statements Monday that they supported the governor’s special session request. But John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, derided the move as wasteful and a reflection of lawmakers’ inability to finish their work on time.

“Republican leadership incompetently steered session into a wall on the last lap,” Zody said in a statement. “Now they’re asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another shot at passing their do-nothing agenda.”

Holcomb said his biggest priorities during the special session would be getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund to Muncie schools to deal with financial difficulties stemming from declining enrollment and mismanagement of a bond issue. That loan was originally a provision in the House bill.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday morning that she also would support action to get Muncie schools the money they were promised. McCormick also said the early warning system could be helpful to prevent these situations in the future.

“We want Muncie to be successful,” McCormick said, adding that anything the state can do to be proactive “and get people help so we’re not dealing with more Muncies and Garys” is a good thing.

The special session could come with a steep price tag for Indiana taxpayers. Micah Vincent, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said early estimates for calling lawmakers back into session could be about $30,000 per day. But that cost “is dwarfed by the cost of inaction,” Holcomb said. It’s unclear how long the special session could last.

The governor also said he wanted to prioritize school safety legislation, another measure that didn’t get final votes before time ran out. He is calling for lawmakers to direct $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

His plan comes in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed last month.

The shooting also sparked activism across the country, with thousands of students protesting against gun violence in schools and calling for stricter gun regulations. Last Wednesday, many Hoosier students joined the national movement by walking out of school.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.