Dust settles on the money fight

Something for almost everyone in legislative funding decisions

When Colorado lawmakers boast about what they did for education funding in the 2014 session, they aren’t just blowing political hot air.

The 2014-15 school finance package, plus spending included in other bills, comes to just over $479 million for K-12 education. (Throw in the $100 million in higher education funding growth and you’re talking about real money.)

And the big fight over whether to add money to basic school funding or funnel it to special programs ended with about 73 percent of the cash going to district operations.

That debate was unusually tense at times during the legislature’s five-month run, but Gov. John Hickenlooper, key lawmakers, superintendents and lobbyists were all smiles at a recent signing ceremony for two key finance bills (see story).

“We did unprecedented work in funding education,” Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, told reporters during an end-of-session briefing.

But the good feelings may not last for long.

Even though legislative action trimmed the $1 billion-plus K-12 budget shortfall, that gap still stands at $894.3 million. Created by a legislative budget-cutting device called the “negative factor,” the shortfall is the difference between what schools actually receive for basic operating costs (known as Total Program Funding) and what they would have been allocated without the negative factor.

Because of that remaining shortfall, education interest groups will continue to press for further reductions in the negative factor. “We have much ground to make up in school funding,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, after the session adjourned. “We made some good progress this year, but we are nowhere close to making a proper investment in our public schools,”

“The negative factor will continue to be an issue. It’s going to take a number of years to repay,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signs K-12 funding bills with students.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. John Hickenlooper signs K-12 funding bills with students.

Political leaders are crossing their figures that the fight won’t be as rough in 2015. “I hope next year won’t be as contentious,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee and a key player to the Student Success Act and the School Finance Act.

“I think it will be a continuing discussion,” said Hickenlooper. “I don’t think it will be a battle every year.”

Whether those hopes are realized remains to be seen, given that a variety of fiscal constraints and demands on the legislature could make it harder to trim the negative factor in the future. One of those is the fact that 2014-15 Total Program Funding increase become part of the K-12 budget base, which has to increase by enrollment and inflation every year.

“It’s going to be a harder fight for a smaller increase every year,” predicts Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. “We’re going to hit a natural ceiling.”

Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston agreed, saying, “We’re a year or two away from hitting the structural wall” that will make it tough to trim the negative factor.

Outgoing House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, originally resisted cuts in the negative factor but was on board with the final deal. “I think we ended up in a good place,” he said. “I feel comfortable. I’m very comfortable that we are sustainable over the next two years.”

Inside the big ed spending bills

K12_201415_SpendingChart

In their push to reduce the negative factor, district lobbyists worked hard to defeat bills that earmarked spending on specific education programs. They weren’t totally successful, but Urschel said, “I think we did very well on ‘no new mandates.’”

In contrast to many of the prior six sessions, the 2014 legislature didn’t create any big, brand-new education programs. Much of the targeted funding that was approved this year will go to existing programs that lawmakers and interest groups felt needed more money.

Here’s rundown of that spending, organized thematically with information about who gets the money or who benefits. You can get more detailed information about the bills that authorized the spending in this special Spending Bill Tracker.

Total Program Funding

Basic school support will be $5.93 billion next year, up from $5.52 billion in 2013-14. (The state share is rising $365.2 million, while local district revenues will go up about $40 million.) Next year’s funding will average $7,020, up from $6,652, according to the Department of Education.

Use Chalkbeat Colorado’s interactive database to see your district’s 2014-15 funding, and how much it will change from this year.

Special groups of students

The biggest chunk of targeted additional spending, about $63.5 million, goes to three groups of special students — at-risk preschool and kindergarten students, English language learners and primary-grade students who are behind in reading.

Funding for these programs generally is given to districts on a per-pupil basis for students who meet the criteria for various programs.

Preschool & kindergarten – $17 million in additional funding was allocated to what’s called the Early Childhood At-risk Enhancement program. That allows school districts to use the funding for either preschool or kindergarten slots for children who meet the at-risk definition of the Colorado Preschool Program. The new money adds 5,000 slots, which will mean an estimated 28,360 students will be served. (House Bill 14-1298 – School Finance Act)

English language learners – The legislature updated state law on services for such students and added $27 million in per-pupil funding. A key change in the law makes students eligible for extra funding for up to five years instead of the two years that has been the limit. ELL programs this year received $15.2 million in “categorical funding,” a $268.8 million pot of targeting spending that’s required by Amendment 23. ELL categorical funding rises to $16.7 million next year, in addition to the $27 million. Under one of the many school funding compromises made this session, the $27 million was not added to categorical funding because doing so would have locked that money into the base and given future legislatures no ability to cut the money in bad budget years. (HB 14-1298)

Struggling readers – Districts will receive an additional $18 million, again distributed per the numbers of eligible students, for early literacy interventions mandated by the 2012 READ Act, which requires individual plans and attention for lagging readers in grades K-3. The law was one of the few reform measures in recent years that was reasonably well funded from the start. But the number of students needing help was larger than expected, so the $18 million is in addition to the $15.4 million previously budgeted. (House Bill 14-1292 – Student Success Act)

Who lost out

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers pushed to increase funding for full-day kindergarten for all students, but those efforts ultimately stalled. (For kindergarten students, the state currently pays districts 58 percent of funding for other students. If districts want to offer full-day kindergarten they have to pay for it themselves – or charge parents. Kindergarten attendance is not compulsory in Colorado.)

There was debate this session about devoting additional funding to at-risk students in general. Some districts argued that extra money for at-risk preschoolers and for English-language learners doesn’t help districts with poor students who don’t fall into those categories. But no one found an affordable compromise on the issue.

Additional funding for special education students really wasn’t on the table this session. Budget increases for such programs was approved in recent sessions.

Other student support

A few bills targeting smaller groups of students managed to survive the 2014 session.

Gifted & talented – A proposal to require screening of all students and hiring of qualified coordinators in all districts was whittled down to $1.9 million and stripped of most of its mandates. The funding is on top of $9.6 million in existing money. (House Bill 14-1102)

Advanced Placement classes – This legislation was relentlessly whittled down as it moved through the process and ended up with $261,561 to provide incentives for rural districts to provide AP classes. The grants are capped at 475 students. (House Bill 14-1118)

Counselors – The Colorado Counselor Corps, which provides additional counselors at schools with at-risk students, got an additional $3 million on top of $5 million in current funding. This bill was one of several that took a haircut. (Senate Bill 14-150)

And still more spending bills

A long list of other measures, and provisions in omnibus spending bills, provided cash for a wide variety of administrative costs, studies, training, school safety and other programs.

At-risk student support

Minority teachers – Lawmakers found $50,000 for the Department of Education to do a study of recruitment and retention of minority teachers. (House Bill 14-1175)

Opportunity gaps – This is a mandate that would provide $144,216 to create a database to track enrollment of different groups of students in core courses, also correlated to test scores. The idea is to uncover tracking of minority students. (House Bill 14-1376)

Turnaround leaders – A program to train leaders for low-performing schools received $2 million in funding. (Senate Bill 14-214)

Charter school facilities

Charter schools, which usually don’t have access to bond issue and other revenues that districts enjoy, often struggle with construction, lease and maintenance costs. Charters will get up to $11.5 million in per-pupil based facilities reimbursements, on top of the current $7 million. Another $6.5 million was added to a fund that backs charter construction loans. (HB 14-1292)

Health & Safety

School meals – Students in grades 3-5 who are eligible for reduced-price meals will get free meals under a bill that primarily will tap federal funds. (House Bill 14-1156). The Breakfast After the Bell program will get an additional $14.3 million in federal funds. (House Bill 14-1336 – Main state budget)

Medical emergencies – High school students will be able to get training in CPR under a $250,000 new grant program. (House Bill 14-1276)

Walking to school – The Safe Routes to School program, which provides education about safe walking and biking to school, will get $700,000 in state funds, partly to cover loss of federal money that the Department of Education has received in the past. (House Bill 14-1301)

Threat reporting – The non-profit Safe2Tell program is being brought into the Department of Law and funded with $318,246 in state money. The program provides a way for young people to anonymously report threats (including suicide), bullying and other dangers. (Senate Bill 14-002)

Marijuana – A bill that details how the state will use marijuana tax revenues includes $2.5 million for a grant program that schools can tap for school nurse training and marijuana education. (Senate Bill 14-215)

Testing

The legislature stepped away from making any changes to the state testing system but did come up with $142,750 to fund work related to a task force study of assessments. (House Bill 14-1202) There’s also $3.8 million in additional funds earmarked for CDE testing costs, and $826,046 more for Spanish language tests. (HB 14-1336)

Administrative Costs & Another Study

What’s included

  • While much of the 2014 debate swirled around use of the state General Fund and the State Education Fund, this story lists bills that tapped other sources of revenue, including federal funds, to give a broader of education funding increases. (Spending for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program, which receives revenues from state-owned lands, isn’t included.)

Financial transparency – The final big fight over the Student Success Act was about whether to fund a state website that users could search for information about K-12 spending, down to the individual school level. CDE received $3 million to hire a contractor to build such a site, which doesn’t have to launch before July 1, 2017. (HB 14-1292)

Online schools – Among the many studies is one on how to oversee multi-district online schools. A task force will be created to do that, at a cost of $47,659. (House Bill 14-1382)

Small districts – Colorado’s boards of cooperative educational services will get an additional $2 million in state funding, the idea being to give BOCES more resources so that they can help smaller districts with implementation of various new state educational requirements. (HB 14-1298)

CDE increases – The department got several pots of additional money to run various programs, including teacher of the year ($24,800), early childhood administration ($63,607), creation of early childhood student identifiers ($298,000), information technology improvements ($3 million), English language learner programs ($311,682) and college and career readiness programs ($170,845). (HB 14-1298 and HB 14-1336)

CDE also gets a little bit off the top of several bills for administration. For example, state law allows the department to retain up to 3 percent of Counselor Corps funding for its costs – primarily staff – of running the program.

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.”