state of play

With elections over, superintendents to push for more money from Hick, legislature

PHOTO: Chalkbeat File Photo
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was narrowly re-elected Tuesday. Superintendents who spoke with Chalkbeat said they plan on asking him and the state house for more funding with few earmarks.

Colorado’s electorate might be as polarized as ever, but the state’s superintendents are finding plenty of consensus on how the state funds its schools. Or, as they see it, how the state doesn’t fund its schools enough.

“The number one concern is state funding. After that it’s testing and everything else,” said Bruce Messinger, Boulder Valley’s superintendent, in a post-Election Day interview.

And now, with a better understanding of who will shape the state’s next budget, those school leaders intend to make their frustrations known loud and clear.

Superintendents from across the state plan to send a letter to the governor and General Assembly outlining their recommendations for the next budget cycle. The letter is expected to be signed by most — if not all — of the state’s superintendents.

In that letter, which should arrive before the start of the next legislative session in January, the superintendents will ask Colorado’s lawmakers to both restore the estimated $900 million the state owes its schools and provide more funding targeted to the state’s neediest and rural students, multiple superintendents said.

The letter will also request that the state hand over the tax dollars without earmarks specifying how the money should be spent.

“The state doesn’t know what we cut, so how do they know what to give back?” said Mark Hale, superintendent of Montrose and Olathe schools.

School funding has been contentious in Colorado for some time. During the Great Recession, the legislature had to juggle constitutional requirements to fund education and balance its budget. To do so, it created the “negative factor,” which led to about a billion dollar in cuts.

“It’s very important that we invest in our kids and in our schools,” said Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent. “Right now we continue to be one of the lowest-funding states in the country.”

Boasberg said the lack of funding hasn’t helped any school district boost student achievement, especially those school districts with a large population of students of color and those who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices. If anything, he said, the lack of funds has made the work more difficult.

As the economy has recovered, schools have begun to see more money. Some of those funds, however, have been only been provided to fulfill projects created by legislators. For example, earlier this year the legislature provided school districts money to create websites to report how individual schools spend their revenues.

“We’d really like to see our voice back — the way its been going, it’s been to have accountability at the local level but decision making at the (legislative) level,” Hale said. “There’s a disconnect there.”

While superintendents are fed up, they are optimistic about a recovering economy and what appears to be a willingness to collaborate on the part of state officials.

Prior to the election, Democratic lawmakers extended a sort of olive branch to superintendents inviting them to work together on school finance issues. And in his first draft of the 2015-16 budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed an increase in student funding. But those extra dollars wouldn’t be guaranteed in the future.

“It’s a good starting place,” Hale said. “Maybe [Hickenlooper] is a little serious about giving us due consideration.”

The superintendents plan to send their letter outside the auspice of any formal organization. The process, they said, has been organic. Clusters of superintendents have been meeting off and on at different retreats for months. But the school leaders have decided there is strength in numbers.

“We’re a much more unified voice,” said Pat Sanchez, superintendent of Adams 14. “And we want to have a stronger voice at the legislature — like we used to have.”

They also decided that they can’t waste energy fighting among themselves and their respective priorities.

“There’s a saying, ‘the cure for Denver is often the disease of Montrose,'” Hale said. “[But] I don’t want to fight with Douglas County or Cherry Creek.”

That’s one just another reason why district officials want more control over how they spend tax dollars.

“There needs to be recognition that there are different needs between large schools and rural schools,” said Dan McMinimee, superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools. “On the eastern plains, they may have issues like infrastructure. They might have to hire more people. Here we might need technology and books, or to build new schools. The question is, how can we put together a package that we all want and need, knowing that each district is different. The bottom line: We want to make those decisions locally.”

Take back

Higher property values mean Colorado is getting back millions from schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Colorado State Capitol

With student enrollment lower than anticipated and property tax revenues up in many districts, the state could get back as much as $77 million originally allocated for schools this year.

That’s a small portion of Colorado’s $7 billion K-12 education budget, and that money could be used to help fund Gov. Jared Polis’ universal full-day kindergarten plan. But some lawmakers want school districts, not the state, to control at least a portion of that money.

Citing the recent Denver teacher strike and concerns over school funding, the Colorado House voted Friday to let schools keep $12.9 million of that money. As early as Wednesday, the state Senate must either approve the amended Senate Bill 128 or send it back to a conference committee made up of the budget committee members.

It’s the first salvo in what could become a contentious debate over how the state funds schools.

Under Colorado law, the legislature determines how much money school districts should get for each student, with the state and school districts picking up a portion of the costs. If local districts raise more money, the state pays a correspondingly smaller amount. This year, school districts raised a collective $56.1 million more than predicted from local sources, mostly property tax revenue.

At the same time, schools are educating fewer students than predicted. Per pupil funding is based on estimates made months in advance. Enrollment for the current school year is 1,056 fewer than forecast, with at-risk student enrollment 9,893 fewer than the estimate.

The $77 million — or $64.1 million if the House amendment stands — could help fund full-day kindergarten, which is estimated to cost $227 million next year.

Or it could go into next year’s school finance act, which lays out how much money schools will get for 2019-20. Or it could go into the general fund, where it could be used for other needs.

But asking school districts to return money midway through the year can be difficult “because districts hire teachers for the start of the school year and then it’s really hard halfway through to say, ‘Oh, we can’t pay for you anymore,’” said Matt Cook, director of advocacy and public policy for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Last year, the state took back $104 million. With an increase in local revenues of $97 million, the total cut was only about $7 million, compared to a $21 million impact this year if the state keeps the full amount. Some of last year’s money was later put toward school safety measures.

The House amendment keeps average per-pupil funding at $8,137, instead of reducing it by about $15 on average as the Joint Budget Committee proposed.

The impact of these proposed changes varies among school districts, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. Some districts have seen larger changes in enrollment than others, and some districts raise a large portion of their revenue from local sources, while others are more dependent on state funding.

“[Y]ou’re all of a sudden again going to have a whole different group of kind of winners and losers in this process,” she said.

There’s also a political consideration for Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Everybody who ran for election this last year ran on funding education better, and that they were looking to try to solve the problem,” Rainey said.

In fact, attack ads in the 2018 election often cited votes on school finance amendments or promises to increase school funding.

The House amendment passed on a voice voice with apparent broad support. It replaced an earlier amendment that would have left all $77 million with the school districts.

“I think our next step for us would be what’s the financial, fiscal implication of the amendment and then wait to see what we hear from our staff,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget committee member.

How this relatively tiny slice of the pie is carved up could be instructive, going forward, education observers say.

“That’s always the big question every year, right?” Cook said. “How do we pay for everything? This year you’ve got the pressure for full-day kindergarten, so I think it’s going to be a very tough budget negotiation.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.