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.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.