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 money

‘We need the funding, and so do our kids.’ Colorado teachers take to the streets for Amendment 73

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer
Denver teachers line Colfax Avenue to urge voters to approve Amendment 73, a tax increase to raise money for education.

Waving “Yes on Amendment 73” signs, Denver teachers formed red-shirted clusters along Colfax Avenue Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to get people to support teachers,” said Danette Slater, an elementary teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver. “We need the funding, and so do our kids.”

Amendment 73 would raise Colorado’s corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate on people earning more than $150,000 a year to generate $1.6 billion a year in additional funding for education. The state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any proposed tax increase. Two previous attempts to raise taxes for education have failed.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Funding,” said Slater’s handmade sign.

The Denver demonstration was one of 27 teacher actions around the state, as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, prepares for a major push during October to rally support for Amendment 73. Organizers with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association had hoped for a larger turnout, with as many as a thousand teachers lining Colfax from East High School to the Colorado Education Association headquarters at Grant Street and Colfax near the Capitol. Instead, a few hundred teachers formed a series of small groups at key intersections.

Denver Public Schools may have dampened turnout with a memo to building principals saying that teachers who wanted to leave school early to engage in advocacy must take unpaid leave and giving principals the authority to deny leave and discipline any teachers who left anyway.

The small numbers did not dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers and community members who were demonstrating.

“It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week,” said M.J. Jobe, a parent volunteer in the Cherry Creek district who was demonstrating with her husband Jarrad Jobe, a Denver Public Schools teacher. “Everyone is here because they care about kids and care about education. If we vote no, what kind of message are we sending to our kids?”

Passing drivers honked their support, and the teachers cheered in response.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado opposes Amendment 73. He said the tax measure has been sold to teachers as a way to raise pay, but there’s no guarantee that the money will reach teachers’ paychecks or improve educational outcomes for students.

Ragland points to trends over the last several decades in which teacher salaries have decreased when adjusted for inflation, even as more money has gone to schools. Administrative costs eat up a larger share of school budgets, something Ragland believes is driven as much or more by growing regulation at the federal and state level than by high administrative salaries.

“The trend is bad, and just adding more money is not going to change those trends,” he said. “The problem is real, but the solution that Amendment 73 offers is not.”

PHOTO: Aurora Education Association
Aurora teachers demonstrate in support of Amendment 73.

While education funding has increased in recent years with the strong economy, Colorado lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion from schools since the Great Recession. Colorado currently ranks 28th among U.S. states in per-pupil funding and 31st in the country for teacher pay, but the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – the difference between teacher pay and the wages earned by other professionals with similar levels of education – is among the worst in the nation.

Like many Denver teachers, Jarrad Jobe, a science teacher at Denver Center for International Studies Baker, has a lot of unanswered questions about administrative spending in the district. (Denver administrators, for their part, have tried to reassure the public with new online budget tools.) He has 35 students in each class, and his classroom doesn’t have a proper whiteboard. Jobe believes too much money gets spent on “middle management,” but he also believes the entire pie needs to get larger. Everything has gotten more expensive, and school funding hasn’t kept pace, he said.

M.J. Jobe has a close eye on Cherry Creek’s finances from her seat on a parent advisory committee. Jobe believes the wealthier suburban district is well run and transparent about its spending, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the Denver metro area. But teachers don’t have money for field trips, and the band program exists only due to the private fundraising efforts of parents, she said.

Dakota Prosch, who works with Slater at Sandoval, said she’s relying on promises made by the Denver school board that teacher pay will be a top priority if Amendment 73 passes. Opponents of the measure also fear higher taxes will hurt Colorado’s economy, but Prosch said struggling schools and teachers looking for better opportunities elsewhere will also hurt the economy.

“You can’t have good schools without good teachers, and you can’t have good teachers when across the border you can earn $10,000 more and be in a low-cost area,” she said. Teachers in Wyoming have much higher average pay than their colleagues in Colorado.

Standing nearby, Becka Hendricks said the idea that new revenue will go to ever-increasing administrative costs is one of her fears, even as she demonstrates in favor of Amendment 73.

But at the end of the day, she believes schools need more money. Hendricks, who teaches math to students aged 17 to 21 at Emily Griffith High School, said too many schools don’t even have basic materials or the support staff that students need to be successful. Class sizes are too large, and teacher salaries are too low.

“When we fight for these things with the district, the district’s answer over and over again is, ‘We don’t have the money,’” she said. “If this passes, we can say, ‘We know you have the money.’”

where the money goes

The fight for teacher raises and 4 other takeaways from our IPS referendum forum

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Panelists at the Chalkbeat forum on the IPS tax referendums.

Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Rosa Vazquez had a point to make, and at its core, it was simple: “We need more.”

“It’s difficult when we attempt to send a student to go have a conversation with a counselor and the counselor is too busy, overwhelmed,” said Vazquez, an English as a new language teacher at Arsenal Technical High School, which she said is struggling to serve students who transferred in when the district closed three other campuses last year. “We need more counselors. Our teachers need smaller class sizes.”

Vazquez was one of five panelists gathered Thursday for a forum hosted by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Indianapolis Recorder, and the Indianapolis Public Library to discuss two tax measures on the ballot in November aimed at raising more money for the school system. One referendum would raise $220 million to pay for operating expenses. The second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements.

The panel also featured IPS Board President Michael O’Connor, IPS chief financial officer Weston Young, Indy Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher, and Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer.

The success or failure of the referendums will have far-reaching implications for the cash-strapped district for years to come, reshaping the education of more than 30,000 of students.

We have five takeaways from the panel.

  1. Boosting teacher pay is the central issue

Teacher pay is the focal point of the referendum to raise operating funds for Indianapolis Public Schools. On the panel, nearly everyone agreed that the extra money needs to be used to increase teacher salaries.

Vazquez said her colleagues often have to work second jobs to support their families. Low pay also leads many teachers to leave for other districts, and students ultimately suffer from high turnover, she said.

“Our students are important,” Vazquez added. “They do matter. They do deserve a chance. And being an inner city should not be a downfall for them.”

Many teachers in the district still make less because of pay freezes during the recession, and to make up for the difference, Vazquez said the district may need to give dramatic raises of 10 percent or more.

Young also pointed to one reason pay may be lower in Indianapolis Public Schools than in many of the surrounding school systems. Most of the districts in Marion County have successfully passed referendums to increase school funding in recent years, he said.

“It’s hard to compete for wages and retain high quality teachers when everybody around you has increased their cash flow and you haven’t,” he added.

O’Connor said the board is aiming to ensure its teachers are among the highest paid in Indiana. He hopes the referendum funding gets the district close to that point. “We’re committed to making sure the money generated goes to teacher salaries,” he said.

  1. There are areas of disagreement

How much money to send to innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by outside nonprofit and charter operators, was the most contentious issue at the forum.

The teachers in those schools are not employed by the district, so they would not automatically benefit from a proposed pay raise funded by the referendum. But the district will send some of the money raised to innovation network schools, and many of those schools will also benefit because they receive services, such as special education, from the district.

If the district wins support for the tax measures “traditional public schools with this referendum should be priority,” said Vazquez.

O’Connor acknowledged that the district has limited resources to give schools. He argued that innovation schools are a good strategy that is improving outcomes for students. And, he said, the district is still fully committed to traditional schools in the district.

“We’ll continue to make those investments at the teacher level and at the classroom level,” O’Connor said.

  1. Even if the referendum passes, the district is still expected to make huge cuts

The $272 million in additional funding the district seeks is substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined. The lower request is the culmination of months of wrangling between the district and Indy Chamber.

The business group became deeply involved in the effort because its members had concerns about the initial request, Fisher said. “There were concerns about the viability of the referendum — whether it would actually pass,” he said. “We did not want to see the referendum fail.”

In part, the district was able to lower its request by making more optimistic projections about future funding, Young said. But for the new, reduced request to work — and for the district to find money for substantial pay raises — Indianapolis Public Schools must make drastic cuts to its expenses. Those could include closing schools and relying on public transportation for high schoolers instead of yellow buses.

Ultimately, the goal of the chamber’s proposal is to improve the quality of the district and set it on a “sustainable fiscal path,” said Fisher. “We can’t continue to have this manage by crisis.”

  1. Safety is top of mind

Much of the discussion was devoted to the operating referendum, which will help pay for daily expenses such as salaries. But the district is also pursuing a $52 million capital referendum that will be used to pay for building improvements, primarily designed to make schools safer.

In the wake of school shootings like the one in Noblesville, school districts are turning to referendums to raise money for safety improvements, DeBoer said.

“Every time we have an event like in Noblesville it alerts people to the need for safety, and it’s the world that we live in,” he said.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the referendum would pay for safety improvements including secure entrances, new fire safety systems, and improved emergency communication systems.

Because many of the district’s buildings are more than half a century old, retrofitting is more expensive but it is still essential, said O’Connor. “The vast majority of our capital investment is in safety,” he said.

  1. Tax referendums may be the new normal for Central Indiana

Hoosier schools have almost exclusively relied on state funding in recent years. State lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2010, and those funds can now only go toward things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities.

Across Indiana, 60 percent of school districts have never tried a referendum, said DeBoer, who studies referendums. In Marion County and the surrounding suburbs, however, property tax referendums have become the new normal.

“The passage rates have been increasing over the last 10 years,” he said. All the referendums on the ballot in May passed. The economy is improving, district campaigns are improving, and “perhaps the public is coming to accept that is part of … the normal way we fund schools,” he added.

Watch the full forum