Show me the money

Districts take wary view of new transparency law

Sample district transparency template

School district lobbyists did their best to kill the idea during the 2014 legislative session, but now that new financial reporting requirements are law, school districts and the Colorado Department of Education are scratching their heads and sorting out how to make them work.

There have been ripples of anxiety – and not a little confusion — in many districts as details of the mandate started to sink in after both the legislative session and the school year ended.

“People are grumpy,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11. “No doubt about it.”

Some district leaders don’t necessarily see the requirements as an impossible burden, but they wonder about the value of the changes.

The financial transparency requirements are part of House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act that was at the center of fierce school finance policy debates during the 2014 session. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for details on all the bill’s provisions.)

What the law says has to be done

While many nuts and bolts of implementing the transparency requirements remain to be worked out, the new mandate goes significantly beyond a 2010 transparency law (get details on that here) and requires three main things:

Uniformity – The law requires greater standardization in how districts display financial information on their websites. “All districts will have to report [data] in the same fashion,” said Leanne Emm, associate commissioner for school finance at CDE.

Data for every school – Districts ultimately will have to report spending information for individual schools, information that some districts report now but others don’t.

One-stop shopping – Three years from now there will be a single website containing financial information about all districts and schools. The law requires the website to be designed so as “to ensure the greatest degree of clarity and comparability by laypersons of expenditures among school sites, school districts, the state Charter School Institute, and boards of cooperative services.” (The site will be created by a to-be-selected contractor, not CDE.)

What worries districts

A wide variety of district officials interviewed by Chalkbeat raised four main concerns about the law:

Implementation – District officials generally agree that compliance will be relatively painless for large districts but presents a greater challenge to some medium-sized and small districts. “It is going to be a lot of work for a lot of people. It depends on how big you are and how many people you have working for you,” Gustafson said.

Comparability – Even with the requirement for greater uniformity, some district officials wonder if district and school data will be fully comparable. They raise the question of likely district differences in how they account for costs borne by multiple schools – things like the salaries of special education teachers, psychologists and other staff who split their time among buildings.

“It is a significant change to set up your personnel systems [to account for] a teacher or even a principal who works at several different schools,” said Bill Sutter, chief financial officer of the Boulder Valley School District.

Use & Misuse – District officials say they support transparency as an ideal but are openly skeptical that new financial data will see much use by the public.

“Who’s going to actually look at this website?” asked Tracy John, business manager of the 606-student Peyton School District northeast of Colorado Springs.

Anecdotally, districts say there’s little public use of financial information currently available online. “I don’t receive very many calls about transparency,” said Guy Bellville, chief financial official of the Cherry Creek Schools.

And districts are nervous that advocacy groups will use school-level financial data for their own ends, ignoring the context and nuances of why districts spend money as they do.

“Rather than build confidence in school budgeting decisions, it is more likely to provide ammunition to public education detractors who have no interest in learning the deeper context or complexity that comes with school budgeting,” argues Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County Schools.

Impact on student achievement – “Tell me how this is going to impact student achievement,” Gustafson said. “This is a distraction that takes away from student achievement.” Said Boulder’s Sutter, “I’m fairly certain there are no studies about how one more accountant in the district office is going to affect outcomes.”

Another view on data use

Sen. Mike Johnston, a prime sponsor of HB 14-1292 and the instigator of much recent education reform legislation, has a different take on the law.

The Denver Democrat made his case at a recent meeting of district finance officials and CDE staffers who are starting to flesh out the details of implementing the law.

“People will use the data depending on how easy it is to use,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of presenting information in the right way.”

Johnston also made the pitch that greater financial transparency might make voters more sympathetic to increased funding for education.

During the Amendment 66 campaign in 2013 many voters has “this misperception that education was this large overfunded bureaucracy.” He argued the state needs “to allow parents to understand in regular language where the dollars go in their schools. Our belief is doing this well will paint a clear picture to parents and taxpayers about where those dollars are going. … This makes it easier to make that case” for more funding.

Education interest groups have a variety of reasons for supporting greater financial transparency. Reform groups that advocate for funding equity hope it will provide greater insight into whether low-performing schools are getting the money they need to help at-risk students. Charter schools think greater insight into district spending will show whether or not they’re getting an appropriate share of funding. Republican lawmakers hope transparency will shed more light on pension costs. And others hope transparency is a step toward greater control of money at the school level and even “backpack” funding for individual students.

Transparency a second-tier trend

While financial transparency doesn’t have the high profile of issues such as Common Core State Standards or testing, “it’s a trend we’re seeing right now, and it’s been going on for awhile,” said Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

“Most states require districts to report on financial data,” Griffith said, and now policymakers are saying, “You need to start accounting on a school-level basis.”

Part of the trend is rooted in overall technological change. “As the technology has advanced and people have gotten used to looking things up … that has pushed policymakers.”

Griffith added, “When the idea is presented to policymakers they get excited because they like data. The question is what they do with it when they get it.”

On the school district side, he said, “There’s another fear – they’re going to have to change the way they do business.”

As Colorado administrators discuss the new law, Michigan and Rhode Island are frequently mentioned as possible examples to follow.

Michigan’s state system is under construction; get more information here. To see how districts report, see this page on the Lansing School District site. (All Michigan districts are required to have a prominent financial transparency logo on their home pages. But school-level data isn’t currently required.)

Learn more about Rhode Island’s system here.

The transparency to-do list

The state transparency website doesn’t have to launch until July 1, 2017, but that doesn’t mean CDE and districts don’t face a lot of work – starting now.

A subcommittee of CDE’s Financial Policies and Procedures Committee is working to develop a standard template for districts to use on their websites and hopes to finish that by October.

The full FPP group is supposed to develop a recommendation for the State Board of Education on how to report district revenues.

CDE plans to have a request for proposal finished by the end of the year. This contains specifications that outside bidders will have to meet if they want the $3 million contract to build the statewide website.

Districts will have to use the new template starting July 1, 2015, posting the financial information required by the 2010 transparency law.

In late 2016 or early 2017, using a second template developed by the state, districts will have to post individual school financial data on their sites.

Using data provided by districts, the contractor is supposed to launch the statewide site July 1, 2017.

Emm said the current 2014-15 school year “is almost a planning year” but that districts will have serious work to do starting in about February.

But it’s not fully clear what that work will require. “School districts will not understand what’s required until the FPP completes the template,” said Cherry Creek’s Bellville.

Finding district information can take some effort

District leaders and lobbyists last spring repeatedly made the point that state law already requires posting lots of financial information on district websites, making a new mandate unnecessary.

They were right that the 2010 law requires districts to post annual budgets (full budgets and summaries), audits, quarterly financial statements, salary schedules, check registers, credit and purchase card statements and investment performance reports. (See CDE’s suggested – not mandatory – current template for displaying that information.) The new law allows districts to drop quarterly statements, check registers and card statements after July 1, 2017.

But in many ways the current system is more translucent than it is transparent.

Chalkbeat clicked around the websites of Colorado’s 10 largest districts plus eight more districts of varying sizes – one district with about 1,000 students, another with about 900 students and so on down to a 100-student district.

Overall we found that if you’re looking for district financial information, be prepared to make educated guesses about which homepage link to click and be ready to do a fair amount of clicking, scrolling and opening of large PDF files.

Here are some highlights (and lowlights) of what we found, along with a few hints to help your searches.

  • Home page links to transparency information aren’t consistent. We found them near the top of some pages, in the middle of others and at the bottom of some. (Boulder Valley gets kudos for its blue “BVSD Financial Transparency” button near the top of the home page. Dougco has a Transparency link in a row across the top of the home page.)
  • The link doesn’t always read “Financial Transparency.” If you don’t see those words, look for links with wording like District Finance, District Office, Financials, Administration, Finance & Budget and even About. Pull-down menus generated by such links sometimes reveal a Financial Transparency link.
  • When all else fails, type “financial transparency” into the search window on the district’s home page and see what you find.
  • District budgets and budget summaries can contain a wealth of information, including school-level information for some larger districts. But every district uses its own format. Cherry Creek, for instance, provides easy-to-read information for every school, including photos and demographic details. Other districts’ budgets contain multiple number-crammed spreadsheets of school information. Some districts provide per-pupil spending by school; others don’t.
  • You’ll need to click and scroll. Once you find it on the website, open your district’s budget in Adobe Acrobat or another PDF reader, use the table of contents column on the left and start hunting.

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.

School Finance

School health clinics could take a hit under rule to restrict green cards for immigrants who receive public aid

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

One student stands out in Dr. Viju Jacob’s mind when he thinks about all the patients he’s seen in his 15 years at school-based health clinics: a Central American immigrant enrolled at a Bronx high school in 2012.

The student did not have insurance, which Jacob said is common for new immigrants, but the clinic offers free care regardless of a student’s immigration or insurance status. That’s thanks to Medicaid funding from other students’ claims.

Over the next four years, the student returned to the clinic, located in his school, when he needed a physical or simple treatment. But it wasn’t just his physical health that improved.

“He got a lot of soft emotional support,” Jacob said. “Coming to us, having people who spoke his language or his native language to sort of encourage him, help him with filling out forms.”

Jacob and immigrant advocates worry students like this may not get the support they need under a new federal proposal that would make it tougher for immigrants to successfully seek green cards if they rely on public benefits.

“Especially in New York City and in the New York City public school system, a large portion of the student population in some shape or form is on Medicaid or Medicaid managed care,” Jacob said. “That is such a large pool that could be affected if this rule gets implemented.”

To receive a green card, immigrants currently have to prove they won’t be a burden on the government, so officials already consider the cash benefits that they receive when reviewing applications. But now, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand the rule so that green cards can be denied to immigrants who rely on benefits such as  non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D, food stamps or forms of housing assistance.

Researchers and immigration advocates believe that even though a final decision on the proposal is months away, news of this rule could persuade large swaths of immigrants to halt their public benefits, out of fear it will affect their ability to become permanent U.S. residents. In a recent analysis, the city estimated that 75,000 New York City immigrants may have to choose between benefits and a green card.

And fewer Medicaid enrollees means fewer dollars rolling into clinics that serve at least 387 schools across the system, since they operate through partnerships with healthcare providers and depend, in part, on Medicaid funding that students may claim. It’s too early to tell the exact impact, but advocates, analysts, and even the federal government have acknowledged that the rule change could result in loss of funding.

“It’s bad enough for the families, and it’s even worse for us because we rely heavily on that funding stream,” said Jacob.

Clinics were a big part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term education agenda, which involved providing more schools with wrap-around services.

“Taking away services that keep children well-fed and healthy is wrong,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We’ll continue to ensure that our children, regardless of their and their family’s immigration status, have the resources they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

It’s not clear how many children are enrolled in the school-based clinics or how many, on average, use them. The city’s Department of Education didn’t respond to requests for comment about the rule change, including what portion of Medicaid funds buoy school health clinics, which are run by medical centers, local hospitals and community organizations. 

According to Jacob, who is also board chairman of New York School Based Health Alliance, it’s typical for clinics to receive between two-thirds to half of their funding from Medicaid. The rule is expected to threaten the livelihood of similar clinics in other states, such as Colorado.

If enough people pull out of Medicaid, clinics could seek specific grant funding instead, Jacob said.

This is the latest immigration issue that New York City’s top education officials have had to grapple with. In the past, they’ve been quick to respond, such as reassuring families that their information is safe with the school system. Last year, a school in Queens turned federal immigration agents away after they showed up and asked about a fourth-grader. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was an administrative inquiry.)

Last March, the school system updated guidance for principals on immigration issues, stating that only local law enforcement can enter a school unless without a warrant or unless imminent harm is expected.

The Department of Homeland Security touts its proposal by saying its primary benefit would “help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.”

The rule change wouldn’t include free and reduced-price lunch, which is universal in New York City. The rule also wouldn’t apply to families making less than 15 percent of the federal poverty level, refugees, asylum-seekers, legal immigrants in the military or immigrants who receive assistance after natural disasters.

Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a “chilling effect” could even dissuade people who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is not included in the proposal, from continuing to receive the benefit. Other analyses come to a similar conclusion, including a June report from by the Migrant Policy Institute.

“In theory people should understand that they don’t need to disenroll their child from benefits because that’s not going to affect them,” said Mike Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which did an analysis of the “chilling effect” this rule could have. “In practice it may still have that effect because this is very complicated, and we’re operating in an environment of so much fear and uncertainty.”

Beyond clinics losing funding, immigrant parents might be too scared to let their children go to an in-school clinic. Advocates said there is a fear among immigrants over what information government institutions are collecting and how it could be used against them.

Christina Samuels, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said her organization has raised these concerns with the education department, which has said it would protect families’ information. School health clinics don’t ask about immigration status.

In Jacob’s experience, students of different ages use the school health clinics for different reasons. Elementary-school students tend to show up because their parents’ work hours are at odds with doctors’ appointment times, and they can’t afford to take a day off. Those children may have an injury looked at, receive treatment for a stomach ache, or get an immunization.

Middle-schoolers usually get their shots or physicals, and some start to ask about reproductive health. And in high school, students receive a number of services, and preventative and emergency contraception may be addressed.

Outside organizations help staff counselors and social workers at some city schools, which staffers say are already stretched thin. Those, too, could also see more demand as students lose reliable access to food and healthcare, Samuels said.

She also pointed to the mental stress on immigrant students digesting another immigrant-related proposal out of Washington, such as  the proposed ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.

“Now we’re getting into a period where we’re really concerned about the mental health and behavioral health of students,” Samuels said.

City Hall officials have blasted the proposed rule, but have also cautioned that no changes have gone into effect. In a recent press conference, De Blasio said President Donald Trump is trying to “hurt the very people who are contributing to our economy and our future. It makes no sense and we are going to fight it.”

Last week, the federal government opened a 60-day period that allows public comment on its rule. After that, officials will take another 60 days to make a final decision.