Tense night in Senate Ed

School finance fight takes on new intensity

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Democratic Sens. Jessie Ulibarri (left) and Mike Johnston.

Sen. Mike Johnston Thursday night lost key parts of his Student Success Act to a bipartisan coalition in the Senate Education Committee, but he may have a chance to recover because House Bill 14-1292 now heads next to Senate Finance – which the Denver Democrat chairs.

Thursday’s developments added a new element of intrigue to the months-long tug of war over how much money to spend on reducing the state’s $1.04 billion school funding shortfall and how much to use for targeted programs like early literacy and services for English language learners.

A coalition of mainline education interests – school boards, administrators and teachers – has mounted a tireless campaign to reduce the shortfall (called the “negative factor” in statehouse lingo) and to resist targeted funding.

That lobbying paid off in the House, which increased the negative factor buy-down and watered down other elements of the bill.

Senate Education continued that process Thursday, voting for amendments that added to the negative factor reduction, further loosened the bill’s financial transparency requirements and reduced the amount of extra money that would be given to districts for implementation of the READ Act, which requires literacy evaluations of K-3 students and development of individual literacy plans for students who are lagging.

But the bill goes next to Senate Finance, which Johnston chairs and whose five members include Democratic Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City, both Johnston allies on HB 14-1292. (Interestingly, Ulibarri officially was added as a co-prime sponsor of the bill only on Thursday morning.)

Asked by Chalkbeat Colorado if he intends to undo Thursday’s amendments in the finance committee, Johnston was diplomatic, saying only that  “We’ve got to take a look at what passed tonight. There’s work left to do.”

Johnston opponents clearly were taken aback by the committee assignment, and the committee took three breaks to huddle about the parliamentary question before voting 7-0 to send the bill to finance.

When the committee meeting adjourned after more than five and a half hours, district lobbyists huddled in the hallway outside the committee room, grousing about what had happened and noting that similar bills in past sessions hadn’t been routed to the finance committee before heading to Senate Appropriations.

Johnston was bested Thursday by a coalition of Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and the committee’s three Republicans, Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker.

They successfully pushed through amendments that would:

  • Increase the money devoted to reduction of the negative factor to $120 million. (The reduction was $110 million in bill as it came from the House.)
  • Reduction of additional READ Act funding from the $20 million to $10 million. (Districts already receive $16 million a year for this program.)
  • Elimination of funding for a proposed state website that would link users to information about district and school spending. Instead, districts would post that data on their own websites.
  • Elimination of a proposed study of new enrollment counting methods by the Department of Education.

The Success Act is the 2014’s key education funding bill and originally was proposed by sponsors as a way to recover a few of the education reforms contained in Senate Bill 14-213, the comprehensive funding reform bill that never was implemented because voters didn’t approve the tax increase necessary to pay for it.

But HB 14-1292 has been steadily whittled down under that lobbying pressure from school districts and other interest groups intent on winning as large a reduction as possible in the negative factor.

House sponsors worked hard to meet concerns about the bill (see story), partly in hopes of reducing controversy and changes in the Senate. That obviously didn’t work.

Thursday’s extensive testimony touched on familiar themes, with school administrators and board members stressing the importance of reducing the negative factor and other witnesses urging spending on early childhood and English language learners.

Here’s the shape of the bill as it heads to finance:

  • Negative factor: The proposed reduction now is $120 million, up from the $110 million approved by the House. Sponsors originally included no reduction in pre-introduction versions of the bill.
  • Transparency: School districts would be required to post financial information, broken out by school, on their websites, but there would be no central website compiling information statewide. This $5 million has been a key item of contention between school districts on one side and bill sponsors and Gov. John Hickenlooper on the other.
  • Construction funding: HB 14-1292 proposed taking $40 million in marijuana tax revenues and diverting them to kindergarten construction, technology grants and charter facilities funding, instead of letting the funds flow into the main Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. A successful House amendment eliminated most of those earmarks but retained a 12.5 percent diversion to a fund for charter school facilities. Senate Education didn’t change this, despite testimony in support of doing so.
  • Charters: Also still in the bill is $13 million in additional funds that would be allocated for charter facilities, split between per-student grants to schools and supplementing a reserve fund that backs charter construction debt.

Here’s what was cut out of the bill or significantly changed as it’s moved along:

  • Implementation funding: $40 million in per-pupil aid to districts to help cover the costs of implementing education reforms such as new content standards, new tests and educator evaluations was eliminated in the House during negotiations over the negative factor.
  • Enrollment counting: There’s noting left in the bill about this.

Senate Education also considered amendments to House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 school finance act. A committee amendment removed a House proposal that $17 million in at-risk early childhood funding be focused on full-day kindergarten. Senate Education restored a provision that lets districts decide whether to use the money on preschool or kindergarten.

The Senate panel also voted for a modest increase in full-time kindergarten funding, under which those students would be paid for as .6 of a full-time student, instead of the current .58. The committee agreed to retain $30.5 million in additional funding for English language learner programs but moved that funding to a separate account that won’t be subject to the automatic annual increases required by the constitution for some types of school funding.

The next installment in this drama likely will come next Tuesday, when Senate Finance is scheduled to meet.

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.