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.

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.