Marathon finance debate

Marathon hearing sets stage for more negotiations

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

All the anxieties about the proposed Student Success Act, chewed over in countless informal meetings during the last several weeks, were laid out in exhaustive public detail Monday during a six-and-a-half-hour House Education Committee hearing.

Supporters of the bill had their say as well, but opponents of the measure – and those who want significant amendments – dominated the session, which featured some 60 witnesses.

The success act, House Bill 14-1292, is the 2014 session’s centerpiece education bill. It proposes to reduce the state’s $1 billion education funding shortfall by $100 million, gives districts $40 million to help pay for implementing recent reform laws, another $40 million in construction funding, $35 million to improve programs for English language learners, $20 million for early literacy programs, $15 million to pay for a new enrollment counting system and a new school budget transparency system and $13 million in additional funding for charter school facilities. (See this chart for more details.)

The bill is sponsored by three of the legislature’s most influential members on education policy, Reps. Millie Hamner and Carole Murray and Sen. Mike Johnston. Some of the bill’s provisions are reworked portions of Senate Bill 13-213, Johnston’s grand school finance overhaul that was shelved after voters defeated Amendment 66 last November. HB 14-1292’s elements also were carefully assembled to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.

The bill is backed by education reform interest groups long allied with Johnston, a Denver Democrat. But it has sparked widespread opposition among superintendents, many school boards and teachers groups. Feeling pressured by six years of new state education mandates and more than four years of budget cuts – and discouraged by voter rejection of $1 billion in new education revenue – districts are pushing back.

Their consistent but respectful plea as the afternoon turned to evening boiled down to two points – reduce by as much as possible the $1 billion school funding shortfall (known as the “negative factor”) created by the recession, and don’t impose new or expanded programs on districts, with state bureaucracy and regulation attached.

Monday’ hearing was a key event in the intensifying conversation, but it wasn’t a decision point. Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, had announced last week that the committee wouldn’t consider amendments nor vote on the bill Monday.

She told Chalkbeat Colorado that she hasn’t decided when the committee will next work on the bill, or if that session will take place before or after March 18, when state economists issue their quarterly revenue forecasts. Those forecasts will provide the numbers legislators need to finalize both school funding measures and the main state budget bill.

“We’re going to have to work together over the next few weeks to get this absolutely right,” Hamner said, “We will do our very best to respond to what we heard tonight … everyone recognizes that we need to move forward in a way that’s fiscally responsible. … We have a very tough job ahead of us.”

Murray, a Castle Rock Republican, said, “We would like to get all the comments possible from today’s hearing and then go from there.”

Hamner did make a point of noting that under HB 14-1292 and a companion measure, House Bill 14-1298, average per-pupil funding could increase by $403 next year, plus an additional $236 dollars for each English language learner.

Sponsors already have given some ground on the bill. Rough early versions of the measure didn’t proposed any reduction of the negative factor, for instance.

Much of Monday’s testimony focused on districts’ desire to cut into the negative factor. Holyoke Superintendent Bret Miles said, “We need the General Assembly to put the negative factor ahead of pet projects.”

Other superintendents criticized the bill’s proposals to convert to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting and to require districts to publicly report school-level spending, including salaries.

“Districts don’t have the capacity to support the extra mandates proposed in the bill,” said Eaton Superintendent Randy Miller.

Although a phalanx of rural superintendents provided much of the testimony, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Liz Fagen of Douglas County and Cherry Creek’s Harry Bull also supported significant reductions in the negative factor.

Leaders of two high-poverty districts, Sheridan and Commerce City, were more complimentary about the bill, saying it would help their schools.

While it generally seemed clear where most witnesses stodd, Westminster Democratic Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, who was chairing the meeting, asked several people to clarify if they were for or against the bill.

Center Superintendent George Welsh spoke for many when he said, “I’m not against the bill; I’m for improving it.”

Unequivocal support for the bill came only from witnesses representing reform and business groups such as Colorado Succeeds, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children. But leaders of the South Metro Denver Chamber opposed the bill, calling it too bureaucratic.

Witnesses representing charter schools spoke in support of the bill’s increased funding for charter facilities costs.

HB 14-1292 has 35 House sponsors from both parties, although that support may change depending on the final form of the proposal. So far the bill has only one Senate sponsor – Johnston – and there’s much Capitol speculation about the bill’s prospects in that chamber.

House Education on Monday also took testimony on House Bill 14-1298 – only 13 witnesses and an hour of testimony. The bill is the routine annual school funding bill, but it does propose increasing the number of preschool and kindergarten slots for at-risk students by 5,000 and giving boards of cooperative education services an additional $2 million, primarily to help small districts implement new education laws.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.