Funding fight

Student Success funding bill praised and panned

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (at podium) touts the proposed Student Success Act.

Legislative backers of the proposed Student Success Act formally unveiled their spending-and-reform plan at an upbeat Capitol news conference Thursday, even as skeptics ratcheted up criticism of the proposal.

While legislators at the news conference promoted the bill as a balance between more funding and reform, people attending a school boards conference a few blocks away applauded a protest song that called on lawmakers to do more to reduce the state’s school funding shortfall.

The yet-to-be-introduced bill proposes spending more than $300 million — part to reduce the $1 billion funding shortfall, some to help districts pay for implementation of reforms already on the books, and part for a list of earmarked programs. (Chalkbeat Colorado first reported the details of the bill in this story.)

Around the Capitol, the bill commonly is called the “Son of 213,” a reference to Senate Bill 13-213, the comprehensive, $1 billion overhaul of the state’s school funding system that remains on the shelf because voters last year rejected the tax increase necessary to pay for it. (Sponsors of the new bill hate that nickname.)

More than a dozen House members from both parties flanked Democratic Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver as he called the proposal a first step toward improved school funding and a continuation of education reform efforts.

“While not everyone is in full agreement, people have been heard,” Ferrandino said. “We are absolutely committed to working with all stakeholders.”

The bill’s three prime sponsors amplified the do-what-we-can and all-are-being-consulted themes.

Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, touted the bill as a “balanced approach.” Hamner added, “We will continue to reach out to all groups.” Hamner is chair of the House Education Committee and Murray is the senior Republican member.

“We’ve heard the districts, but we also have an interest in moving Colorado forward,” Hamner said.

Senate prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, picked up the same themes, saying, “We’re not going to get all of the way” toward restoring K-12 funding, but added, “Let us begin the process of trying to make this reinvestment.” (While Johnston is widely regarded by lobbyists and many educators as the animating force behind the bill, its sponsors are promoting Hamner and Murray as the key drivers and stress the bipartisan support for the bill, at least in the House. Johnston was the only senator at the news conference.)

Others raise concerns about bill

While supporters were touting the bill, others were significantly less enthusiastic.

As it happens, the Colorado Association of Schools board opened its annual legislative conference on the same day as the supporters’ news conference.

Those who attended a luncheon at the Brown Palace Hotel cheered a “protest” song written by Mark DeVoti, a superintendent who now works for CASB, that urged the legislature to devote more money to buying down the negative factor.

The negative factor is a formula used by the legislature to reduce school funding from what it otherwise would have been in order the balance the annual state budget. It’s estimated the negative factor has set school funding $1 billion below what it would have been otherwise.

The proposed Student Success bill would make only an $80 million dent in that $1 billion. School districts and superintendents are pushing to “buy down” the negative factor in 2014-15 by anywhere from $200 million to $275 million.

The chorus to DeVoti’s two-verse song goes:

Take that Negative Factor, make it go away!
Come on put that billion back
Do it with no string attached
Take that Negative Factor, make it go away

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s point person on education issues, was the featured speaker at the CASB luncheon. According to several people who attended the event, Garcia was peppered with lots of hard questions – and no softballs – about the negative factor and the Student Success bill. Attendees said Garcia held his own but that the session was tense.

Later in the day, CASB chief lobbyist Jane Urschel made an impassioned plea to members to lobby their legislators for reduction of the negative factor. “I cannot do this for you,” she said. “You have to talk to them. … I think they can do [reduce] $200 million in the negative factor and still do some other expenditures they want to do.”

In a reference to that fact that most CASB members come from small rural districts, Urschel said, “Get off your tractors” and come to Denver to lobby.

Two other influential mainline interest groups, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives, issued statements Thursday raising concerns about the Student Success Act.

“We appreciate that lawmakers allocated some money to help revive struggling districts, but the proposed $80 million is inadequate to schools and classrooms that lost more than $1 billion in just five years,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman in a prepared statement. “We also have great concern that the majority of the funding in the proposal comes with mandates on how to use, or is one-time money.”

CASE Executive Director Bruce Caughey also called for a larger cut in the negative factor.

Negative factor reduction carries future implications

A key – but complicated – issue in the negative factor debate is the impact on future state budgets if a significant amount of money is devoted to buying down the negative factor. Because the state constitution requires annual increases in base school funding based on inflation and enrollment growth, increasing base funding through reduction of the negative factor would mean even larger mandatory school funding in future years. People like Ferrandino and Hickenlooper budget advisors resist too big a cut in the negative factor for that reason.

A safety valve for school support is a dedicated account called the State Education Fund, which can be used to supplement school support from the state’s main General Fund. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed keeping a $700 million balance in the SEF at the end of 2014-15, thereby saving some money to spend on schools in future years. The spending proposed in the Student Success Act could leave as little as $200 million or as much as $400 million in the SEF.

Asked about that, Hickenlooper budget chief Henry Sobanet told Chalkbeat Colorado, “There are ideas in the legislature that total several hundred million dollars above our [budget] request. After the March forecast, we will work with the JBC and leadership on a budget package that predicted revenue can support.”

For now, the proposed spending in the Student Success bill is an educated guess and is expected to change after those state revenue forecasts are released at the end of Marcy.

“The March forecast will determine how much we can spend,” Ferrandino said.

Notably absent from the Student Success bill is any increased funding for full-day kindergarten and the Colorado Preschool Program, both favorites of education reformers. Depending on the March forecasts, Murray said additional funding for those programs could be included in the annual school finance bill, a separate piece of legislation. That would be “the icing on the cake,” she said.

New bill proposes other uses for BEST revenue

The Student Success bill proposes spending all $40 million generated by new marijuana taxes for kindergarten facilities, charter school facilities and school technology upgrades.

A bill introduced Wednesday proposes different uses.

House Bill 14-1287 proposes that the money go to the state capital construction fund without earmarking, according to prime sponsor Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley. But the main thrust of the bill is to help school districts affected by disasters such as last year’s wildfires and floods.

In the event of an officially declared disaster, the bill would require the Department of Education to contact affected school districts to inventory damage. Affected districts could apply to the Capital Construction Assistance Board for emergency aid, and the normal local matching requirements of the Building Excellent Schools Today program would be waived. The board could use up to 10 percent of the fund for emergency grants.

Asked about potential conflict with student success bill, Young smiled and said, “I think we’re going to have an interesting debate.” (Young was part of the supporting cast of lawmakers at the Student Success news conference.)

HB 14-1287 originated with a special legislature committee convened after last year’s disaster and has bipartisan sponsorship.

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates


DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.

School Finance

School health clinics could take a hit under rule to restrict green cards for immigrants who receive public aid

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

One student stands out in Dr. Viju Jacob’s mind when he thinks about all the patients he’s seen in his 15 years at school-based health clinics: a Central American immigrant enrolled at a Bronx high school in 2012.

The student did not have insurance, which Jacob said is common for new immigrants, but the clinic offers free care regardless of a student’s immigration or insurance status. That’s thanks to Medicaid funding from other students’ claims.

Over the next four years, the student returned to the clinic, located in his school, when he needed a physical or simple treatment. But it wasn’t just his physical health that improved.

“He got a lot of soft emotional support,” Jacob said. “Coming to us, having people who spoke his language or his native language to sort of encourage him, help him with filling out forms.”

Jacob and immigrant advocates worry students like this may not get the support they need under a new federal proposal that would make it tougher for immigrants to successfully seek green cards if they rely on public benefits.

“Especially in New York City and in the New York City public school system, a large portion of the student population in some shape or form is on Medicaid or Medicaid managed care,” Jacob said. “That is such a large pool that could be affected if this rule gets implemented.”

To receive a green card, immigrants currently have to prove they won’t be a burden on the government, so officials already consider the cash benefits that they receive when reviewing applications. But now, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand the rule so that green cards can be denied to immigrants who rely on benefits such as  non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D, food stamps or forms of housing assistance.

Researchers and immigration advocates believe that even though a final decision on the proposal is months away, news of this rule could persuade large swaths of immigrants to halt their public benefits, out of fear it will affect their ability to become permanent U.S. residents. In a recent analysis, the city estimated that 75,000 New York City immigrants may have to choose between benefits and a green card.

And fewer Medicaid enrollees means fewer dollars rolling into clinics that serve at least 387 schools across the system, since they operate through partnerships with healthcare providers and depend, in part, on Medicaid funding that students may claim. It’s too early to tell the exact impact, but advocates, analysts, and even the federal government have acknowledged that the rule change could result in loss of funding.

“It’s bad enough for the families, and it’s even worse for us because we rely heavily on that funding stream,” said Jacob.

Clinics were a big part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term education agenda, which involved providing more schools with wrap-around services.

“Taking away services that keep children well-fed and healthy is wrong,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We’ll continue to ensure that our children, regardless of their and their family’s immigration status, have the resources they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

It’s not clear how many children are enrolled in the school-based clinics or how many, on average, use them. The city’s Department of Education didn’t respond to requests for comment about the rule change, including what portion of Medicaid funds buoy school health clinics, which are run by medical centers, local hospitals and community organizations. 

According to Jacob, who is also board chairman of New York School Based Health Alliance, it’s typical for clinics to receive between two-thirds to half of their funding from Medicaid. The rule is expected to threaten the livelihood of similar clinics in other states, such as Colorado.

If enough people pull out of Medicaid, clinics could seek specific grant funding instead, Jacob said.

This is the latest immigration issue that New York City’s top education officials have had to grapple with. In the past, they’ve been quick to respond, such as reassuring families that their information is safe with the school system. Last year, a school in Queens turned federal immigration agents away after they showed up and asked about a fourth-grader. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was an administrative inquiry.)

Last March, the school system updated guidance for principals on immigration issues, stating that only local law enforcement can enter a school unless without a warrant or unless imminent harm is expected.

The Department of Homeland Security touts its proposal by saying its primary benefit would “help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.”

The rule change wouldn’t include free and reduced-price lunch, which is universal in New York City. The rule also wouldn’t apply to families making less than 15 percent of the federal poverty level, refugees, asylum-seekers, legal immigrants in the military or immigrants who receive assistance after natural disasters.

Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a “chilling effect” could even dissuade people who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is not included in the proposal, from continuing to receive the benefit. Other analyses come to a similar conclusion, including a June report from by the Migrant Policy Institute.

“In theory people should understand that they don’t need to disenroll their child from benefits because that’s not going to affect them,” said Mike Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which did an analysis of the “chilling effect” this rule could have. “In practice it may still have that effect because this is very complicated, and we’re operating in an environment of so much fear and uncertainty.”

Beyond clinics losing funding, immigrant parents might be too scared to let their children go to an in-school clinic. Advocates said there is a fear among immigrants over what information government institutions are collecting and how it could be used against them.

Christina Samuels, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said her organization has raised these concerns with the education department, which has said it would protect families’ information. School health clinics don’t ask about immigration status.

In Jacob’s experience, students of different ages use the school health clinics for different reasons. Elementary-school students tend to show up because their parents’ work hours are at odds with doctors’ appointment times, and they can’t afford to take a day off. Those children may have an injury looked at, receive treatment for a stomach ache, or get an immunization.

Middle-schoolers usually get their shots or physicals, and some start to ask about reproductive health. And in high school, students receive a number of services, and preventative and emergency contraception may be addressed.

Outside organizations help staff counselors and social workers at some city schools, which staffers say are already stretched thin. Those, too, could also see more demand as students lose reliable access to food and healthcare, Samuels said.

She also pointed to the mental stress on immigrant students digesting another immigrant-related proposal out of Washington, such as  the proposed ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.

“Now we’re getting into a period where we’re really concerned about the mental health and behavioral health of students,” Samuels said.

City Hall officials have blasted the proposed rule, but have also cautioned that no changes have gone into effect. In a recent press conference, De Blasio said President Donald Trump is trying to “hurt the very people who are contributing to our economy and our future. It makes no sense and we are going to fight it.”

Last week, the federal government opened a 60-day period that allows public comment on its rule. After that, officials will take another 60 days to make a final decision.