Statehouse roundup

House backs down in school finance fight; Indian mascots bill killed

Monique Lefthandbull (right) and daughters Lacey (center) and Lucille testified for the American Indian mascots bill.

Updated April 30, 10:40 a.m. – The House Thursday backed away from a confrontation with the Senate over the 2015-16 school-funding bill by stripping a controversial amendment from the measure.

The amendment, added on the House floor Thursday, would have resurrected a two-year legislative study of the school finance system. The Senate earlier killed a separate bill that contained the proposal.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed backing off Wednesday’s amendment. While saying she supports the study, she added, “We also have to be the adults in the room. The school finance bill passing in the Senate is really important.” Leaving the amendment in the bill “really does put the bill at risk.”

The House voted 38-26 to strip the amendment and then passed the finance act 45-19.

Text of Wednesday story follows

The House set up a possible confrontation with the Senate Wednesday over the 2015-16 school-funding bill and the issue of whether the legislature should do a study of K-12 finance.

Capitol action also was marked by the defeat of some education-related measures, including the American Indian mascots bill.

Action was delayed on key bills involving testing and student data privacy, putting further pressure on the calendar as the legislature faces a May 6 adjournment deadline.

The school funding measure, Senate Bill 15-267, is pretty straightforward, although it’s disappointing to many legislators because it provides increases only for inflation and enrollment growth. It also includes a $25 million pay-down on the state’s K-12 funding shortfall and $5 million in extra money for at-risk students. (See this story for more details.)

Concern about school funding provided the impetus for another measure, House Bill 15-1334. That bill would have created a two-year legislature study committee to review the school finance system and develop reform proposals for the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions.

That bill was killed 4-3 Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, even though it had been passed by the House 47-16 and was ratified 18-0 by a House-Senate review panel. (The appropriations committee doesn’t usually kill bills of its own volition, but it isn’t known which Senate leader may have suggested the bill be killed.)

After members from both parties vented about the inadequacy of the school funding bill, Rep. Tom Dore, R-Elizabeth, proposed an amendment that basically inserts the House’s study committee bill into the main finance bill. His colleagues liked the idea and passed the change on a voice vote, with no audible ‘no’ votes.

Finance bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner was taken aback by Dore’s move. “Oh my goodness. This really is an interesting dilemma,” she said. “The amendment really is a good idea.”

The Dillon Democrat also was a prime sponsor of the bill to create a study committee. But she may face some delicate negotiations because as sponsor of the main finance bill she’s committed to helping produce a “clean” measure. Sponsors in both chambers had agreed to resist big changes or additions to the school funding measure.

Separate bill includes a sweetener for rural districts

Another finance related measure, House Bill 15-1321, passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-4 vote Wednesday. The bill gives small rural districts flexibility in complying with some state education regulations.

More important, the bill is kind of a companion school finance act for small districts. It would provide $10 million for per-pupil distribution to rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students – amounting to about $280 per child. There’s been a lot of district pressure on the legislature this year to provide some financial relief for rural districts. (See this story for background.)

Another measure, House Bill 15-1201, would provide an additional $10 million over two years to help small districts develop ways to consolidate administrative services. There’s some speculation at the Capitol that one or both of the bills may have some funding removed if lawmakers need cash for other bills in the session’s waning days.

Bill advances to authorize sale of bonds for pension system

The House Finance Committee Wednesday voted 10-1 to approve House Bill 15-1388, the late-breaking and complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which covers teachers, many state government workers and some higher education employees.

Proceeds from bond sales would be deposited in PERA’s state and schools trust funds, both beefing them up and giving the pension system more money to invest.

The bill was introduced only late Tuesday, and it was taken up by the finance committee without being listed on the panel’s calendar. (That’s within the rules during a session’s closing days.)

The bill drew support from heavyweight witnesses like state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a longtime PERA critic; state budget director Henry Sobanet, and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Greater Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Committee members raised questions about both the plan’s safety and why it surfaced so late in the session.

Sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said the bill came so late because it took time to reach agreement among all the interest groups involved in the issue.

Stapleton said, “I believe this has the potential to be a valuable tool to reduce PERA’s unfunded liability.”

Before bonds could be sold, the governor and treasurer would have to sign off on the plan and then seek court review of the plan’s legality.

“There is risk to this, but no doubt,” Pabon said in summing up after a hearing of more than 2 ½ hours. “But it’s a calculated risk.”

Senate State Affairs thins the ranks of ed bills

The state affairs committees in both houses traditionally are used as the “kill committees” to defeat bills that majority leadership doesn’t like. It’s usually taken as a bad sign when a bill is routed to State Affairs even if it logically should go to, say, education.

The Senate panel mostly lived up to its reputation Wednesday, but it did pass one education-related bill.

On a 2-1 vote the panel approved House Bill 15-1317. This is the so-called “pay for success” bill. The measure would allow the state to create arrangements under which foundations and investors could fund social services like early childhood programs and be repaid from savings in other programs, such as reduced remediation or special education. (Get background.)

Here’s what was killed:

House Bill 15-1165 – The bill would have required schools obtain permission from a state committee to use American Indian mascots and logos. (Get background.) 3-2 to postpone indefinitely

House Bill 15-1251 – This was a seemingly technical measure that would have reduced payments made by the Denver Public Schools to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Adjustment of the payments was required by the law that merged the DPS pension system into PERA five years ago, so there may legal issues if the legislature doesn’t make the adjustment. Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg testified for the bill, saying it would free up money that could be better used in classrooms. (Get details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.) 3-2 to postpone indefinitely

House Bill 15-1326 – This bill would have prohibited state colleges and universities from discriminating against applicants who earned high school diplomas from districts that have low ratings or aren’t accredited by the state. The measure was pushed by lawmakers whose legislative districts include low-performing school districts that face state intervention, including loss of accreditation, in 2016. (Get background.) 2-1 to postpone indefinitely

Track the legislature’s final days

Several other education-related measures advanced Wednesday. But with so many bills in play, we can’t report every vote in our daily roundups. Use our Down to the Wire Bill Tracker to check the status of the most important two-dozen bills being considered at the end of the session.

For lower-profile measures, use the full Education Bill Tracker, which includes all 116 bills introduced this year.

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.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.