Dollars for schools

Republicans grouse about earmarked spending

Reducing the negative factor, the state’s $1.4 billion school funding shortfall, has gotten most of the attention this year, but there are plenty of bills floating around that propose spending money on a variety of other education programs.

A couple of Republican House members put a spotlight on some of those bills Monday with unsuccessful arguments to defeat the measures.

“Here we go again with expanding a program we can’t afford to expand,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, after House Bill 14-1156 came up for preliminary debate. The bill would make students in third through fifth grade who now are eligible for reduced-price lunches able to get free lunches. (Preschool through 2nd grade students already get free lunches.)

Sponsor Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, originally included students up to grade 12 in his bill, but scaled it back to reduce the cost.

“I hesitate to speak against this,” Murray said, saying state spending ought to be focused on highways, basic K-12 support and public safety.

Moreno countered by saying, “We are talking about one of the most fundamental things in school, that kids get fed.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said, “It seems to me like we’re trying to raise test scores in the lunchroom. … Schools are for learning. They’re not for social programs.”

There was similar back-and-forth on House Bill 14-1276, which would create a modest grant program to pay for programs to teach high school students how to perform CPR.

“Here we go again, spending money on a new program, which could go to spending down the negative factor,” said Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial.

“What we’re doing is creating a new program when can’t fully fund the programs we have,” Murray added.

(There was a similar argument over House Bill 14-1124, which would provide resident tuition eligibility to Native American students who belong to tribes with historic ties to Colorado. “We can’t afford it,” argued Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.)

In all three cases, the GOP arguments were for naught, as the bills passed on voice votes.

There is a wide range of bills that proposed spending on education programs other than the negative factor, and both Democrats and Republicans are involved in backing those efforts. Here’s a rundown on the measures still in play:

Democratic spending bills

Total cost – $7.2 million

Achievement gaps – House Bill 14-1376 would require the Department of Education to gather data, broken out by ethnic groups and other student characteristics, on how students perform in core courses. The measure is so new that a fiscal analysis hasn’t been done yet. (Awaiting House committee action)

Alternative ed campuses – Senate Bill 14-167 would create a pilot program for improvement of alternative education campuses’ performance, at a starting cost of $62,639. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

Adult education – House Bill 14-1085 would create a $960,000 program to fund adult education and literacy programs. (Awaiting final House vote)

Gifted students – House Bill 14-1102 proposes to spend about $3 million to beef up programs for gifted and talented students. (Awaiting initial House vote)

Health – House Bill 14-1276 proposes a $300,000 grant program for training high school students in CPR. (Awaiting final House vote)

Minority teachers – House Bill 14-1175 would give the Department of Education $50,000 to prepare on report on recruitment and retention of minority teachers. (Passed House 38-24 Monday)

Principals – Senate Bill 14-124 would spend $2 million to create a program for training school turnaround leaders. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

School meals – As amended in committee to reduce its cost, HB 14-1156 would make those students currently eligible for reduced-price school lunches eligible for free lunches, as a cost of $809,095. (Awaiting final House vote)

A Republican spending bill

Rural districts – Wilson’s House Bill 14-1118 would provide financial incentives to rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes, at a cost of $499,061. (Passed House 53-9 Monday)

Bipartisan bills

Total cost – $6.1 million

Counselors – Senate Bill 14-150 would increase funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps to the tune of $5 million. (Awaiting initial Senate floor action)

Safety – House Bill 14-1301 adds $700,000 in funding for the Safe Routes to School program run. (Passed House 42-20 Monday) Senate Bill 14-002 would provide $281,952 for placing the Safe2Tell program in the attorney general’s office. (Awaiting Senate initial consideration)

Testing – House Bill 14-1202 would spend $142,750 to help support a task force that would study the state testing system. (Awaiting Senate committee review)

Out of the running

Several proposed K-12 spending bills with a total cost of nearly $20 million have been killed. Here’s the list:

Data – House Bill 14-1039 proposed to spend $593,945 on linking ECE student data with the main K-12 data system. (Democratic)

ECE quality – House Bill 14-1076 would have cost $12.5 million to set up a program to improve quality of early childhood facilities. Senate Bill 14-006 proposed $470,115 to pay for scholarships for early childhood educators. (Both Democratic)

School supplies – House Bill 14-1094 proposed an August sales-tax holiday on school-related purchases at an estimated $2.8 million loss in state tax revenues. (Bipartisan)

Teachers – House Bill 14-1262 would have created a $4 program to pay bonuses to highly effective teachers who worked in low-rated schools. (Bipartisan)

Several of the surviving bills have had their price tags reduced to improve their chances for survival, but some have costs that would balloon after the 2014-15 budget year.

The two bills that comprise the main school finance package, House Bills 14-1292 and 1298, propose reducing the negative factor by $110 million. But they also include some specialized funding, including $20 million for READ Act early literacy programs, nearly $20 million for charter school facilities, $17 million to expand kindergarten access for at-risk students and $30.5 million in additional money for English language learner programs.

Those two measures have passed the House and will be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Big bills move with little debate

While the House squabbled a bit over minor education bills, some big measures advanced with no debate. They are:

  • House Bill 14-1202, the proposed study of statewide testing requirements, passed 62-0.
  • House Bill 14-1294, which sets requirements on CDE for protecting the privacy of student data, also was approved 62-0.
  • Senate Bill 14-165, which would give districts flexibility in how much to weight growth data for teacher evaluations in 2014-15, passed on a preliminary voice vote.

Over in the Senate, the College Affordability Act, Senate Bill 14-001, easily passed a preliminary vote. That debate consisted only of brief positive comments from supporters.

The measure is an “historic reinvestment in our higher education system,” said prime sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

“Arguably it’s not enough, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

The bill would increase higher education funding by $100 million next year and cap tuition increases at no more than 6 percent for the next two academic years.

The Senate Monday also gave preliminary approval to House Bill 14-1291, which would give charter schools authority to hire armed security guards.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

On school finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.