Last Capitol roundup

School funding package wrapped up with a bow on final day

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The Colorado House worked through its calendar on the 2014 session's final day.

The 2014-15 school finance package finished where it started, in the House, on the final day of the 2014 legislative session Wednesday.

House members accepted the conference committee report on House Bill 14-1298, the School Finance Act, and re-passed it 44-21, ending for this year a debate that began in the wake of Amendment 66’s defeat last November.

“It’s been quite a journey, starting before the session began and ending on the last day,” said sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon and chair of the House Education Committee.

“The process has been totally amazing,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and another architect of the finance package. “On both sides of the aisle there is something for us to love and something for us to hate.”

Improving state revenues, along with the realization that no new funds would be coming from Amendment 66, sharply focused the education community this session on the goal of increasing K-12 support as much as possible. Their top objective was buying down part of the state’s $1 billion school funding shortfall, a product of the last recession.

That drive got tangled in debates over funding for preschool and kindergarten, English language learners, literacy programs, and even whether to spend $3 million for a website containing school and district spending information.

The final disagreement was over how much money to drain from the State Education Fund to pay for this year’s spending spree. That was resolved by a House-Senate conference committee whose plan was approved by the Senate Tuesday night and the House on Wednesday morning. That plan changed both parts of HB14-1298 and other spending bills. (Get background on the deal in this story.)

Lawmakers are boasting that spending package increases K-12 funding by more than $400 million, although an exact total is elusive because it depends on which bills are included.

Reporters packed Senate President Morgan Carroll's office for a final briefing on the legislature's last day.
PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Reporters packed Senate President Morgan Carroll’s office for a final briefing on the legislature’s last day.

The bottom line is this. The package increases Total Program Funding, the combination of state and local spending that pays for basic school operations, to $5.91 billion in 2014-15 from $5.76 billion this year. That means statewide average per pupil spending of about $7,020 next year compared to $6,839 in the current school year. Most of the increase is provided by the automatic escalator in the constitution. But lawmakers also reduced the shortfall (known as the negative factor) by $110 million.

Other major elements of the multi-bill package add funding to existing special programs, including:

  • $27 million for English language learner programs
  • $18 million for funding of the READ Act, which provides special services to K-3 students behind in reading
  • $17 million to provide 5,000 additional slots for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students
  • Up to $11.5 million for charter school facilities costs
  • $3 million for the Colorado Counselor Corps
  • $3 million to pay for the financial transparency website
  • $2 million for boards of cooperative education services to assist member districts in implementing recent education reforms
  • $1.6 million for gifted and talented programs

Smooth path for the last education bills

A handful of other education bills were on the calendar for the 2014 session’s 120th and final day. They were measures that required one chamber to accept amendments added by the other. Here’s the rundown:

Board executive sessions – The House accepted Senate amendments and re-passed Senate Bill 14-182, 37-28. The bill requires school boards to keep minutes of executive sessions. Those minutes must include the topics discussed and the length of time spent on each. The proposal sparked repeated disagreements over lawyer-client confidentiality, local control of schools, and the conduct of the Douglas and Jefferson county school boards. A different, earlier version of the bill died because of lack of support in the Senate.

School closures – House Bill 14-1381 was re-passed 38-27. It sets requirements for certain procedures districts will have to follow when closing schools for low academic performance.

Online education – The House vote 45-20 for House Bill 14-1382, whose main provision launches a task force to study how mult-district online schools are overseen.

College scholarships – House Bill 14-1384, passed 62-3 by the House, creates a new college scholarship and student advising program paid for with $33 million in previously-unused funds, earned when the state sold its college loan portfolio. Students won’t see any money until 2016.

Teacher pensions – Senate Bill 14-214 will commission three financial studies of the Public Employees Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers and many other civil servants. The outcome of those studies could set the stage for important PERA debates in the 2016 legislative session. The final Senate vote was 35-0.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”