money money money

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.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”