Statehouse roundup

District liability bill gets initial House approval

Desiree Davis (center) testifies at the Capitol while husband Michael (left) listens.

The bill named after a student who died in a school shooting and that would change the liability of school districts for such tragedies won initial floor approval in the Colorado House late Thursday night.

And even later in the evening, the House also gave preliminary approval to a complicated proposal that would allow the state to sell bonds to help shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

A few hours earlier, a House committee passed a just-introduced measure that promises some relief for K-12 and higher education funding in the future. But the measure faces some big hurdles in the 2015 session’s closing days.

“Claire Davis Act” moves quickly

Senate Bill 15-213, named in honor of Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis, who was killed in a December 2013 shooting, received preliminary House floor approval after an emotional debate.

Several House Republicans raised questions about the bill. Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, proposed an amendment that would have set a higher liability standard for districts than the bill proposes. That failed on a 26-38 vote.

“I am more fearful of this bill than I am of PARCC or Common Core,” said Willett, a lawyer.

But a speech by Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, drew the most attention. Wilson, a retired rural superintendent, said, “You can’t legislate safety folks, you just can’t do it.” His voice choking up, Wilson said, “Weigh your vote carefully.”

Just hours earlier the bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-3 vote. The centerpiece of that hearing was testimony from Claire’s parents, Michael and Desiree Davis.

“If this bill becomes law, school districts will have a new responsibility. They will be responsible for protecting kids from foreseeable harm,” Michael Davis said. “A vote in favor sends a clear message to public education entities that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

“I am here on behalf of my daughter, Claire,” said Desiree Davis. “These bills are not for us, they are for the next family.” (A companion measure would create a study committee on school violence and youth mental health.)

The main elements of the bill would allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.

School districts have been nervous about the bill since it was introduced but have had to be careful in lobbying, given that the bill is sponsored by bipartisan leaders in both houses.

But amendments along the way have softened the measure noticeably. A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability. (See this story for more details on the bill.)

“Those amendments have made it a better bill,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a prime sponsor.

A related measure, House Bill 15-1273, got final House floor approval on 64-0 vote Thursday morning and heads to the Senate. The bill is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools, a system that was criticized in the wake of Claire Davis’ death. Among other things, the bill would require marijuana-related incidents and sexual assaults to be reported separately. They’re now lumped into other categories. (Get more details in this legislative staff summary.)

Fast-track pension bill moving ahead

The other big education-related issue debated during the House’s late-night session was House Bill 15-1388, a complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

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 received preliminary approval after 11 p.m. following a relatively short debate.

The bill was introduced only late Tuesday and approved by the House Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The plan has the backing of the Hickenlooper administration, GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the PERA board and most school districts. It also has bipartisan sponsorship but may face hurdles because of its complexity, the possible risks of such a plan and because it surfaced so late in the session.

If the plan works, supporters estimate the bill would bring PERA to solvency five years sooner than currently projected and would save $4.5 billion.

Heavyweight interests push for change in hospital fee

The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee spent a long afternoon listening to witnesses urging approval of House Bill 15-1389, another just-introduced measure that could provide future benefits for both K-12 and higher education.

The committee passed the bill 7-6 after hearing from a long parade of supporting witnesses representing K-12 and higher education, state agencies, major hospitals, think tanks and business groups. Committee Republicans, some of whom didn’t seem to fully grasp the bill, all voted no.

The bill involves a six-year-old state program called the hospital provider fee, which imposes a charge on hospitals. That revenue provides money the state uses to gain federal Medicaid matching funds, money that couldn’t be tapped without the fee.

Even though the charge is a fee, not a tax, the revenues count against the state’s spending limit under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Tax and fee revenue has risen fast enough that the state will need to pay TABOR refunds to taxpayers this year and, likely, a couple of years into the future.

That has squeezed the amount of additional money available for K-12 and other programs. The bill, sponsored by Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would reclassify provider fee revenues so that they wouldn’t count toward the TABOR limit. The fee program would become what’s called an “enterprise,” which isn’t subject to TABOR. For example, the state’s higher education system is classified as an enterprise, so tuition revenue isn’t counted against the limit.

There’s been chatter for months about reclassifying the provider fee, and Gov. John Hickenlooper belatedly proposed the change a couple of weeks ago.

The bill would “allow us to more fully fund the state’s top spending priorities in the coming years,” Hullinghorst said.

If the bill passes it won’t affect funding of any state programs in 2015-16, nor would it affect TABOR refunds to taxpayers in 2016. But it could free up more than $200 million in revenue for spending in 2016-17, and there wouldn’t be taxpayer refunds in 2017.

Without the bill, “There are going to be some big losers in the budget next year,” Hullinghorst warned, including transportation funding, higher education and likely K-12 as well.

The bill has some things working against it, including its lateness, its complexity and the fact that any perceived tinkering with TABOR makes Republicans nervous. The measure currently has no GOP sponsors in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

But working in its favor is the phalanx of education, highway, health care and business lobbyists who’ve combined forces to push the bill.

Get more information about HB 15-1389 in this legislative staff summary.

House avoids school finance fight

The House Thursday, during its morning floor session, 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, “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 to strip the amendment and then passed Senate Bill 15-267 on a 45-19 vote. The measure returns to the Senate for consideration of non-controversial amendments added in the House earlier.

For the record

Help for rural districts – The Senate Education Committee, after about 90 minutes of wandering testimony and discussion, voted 6-3 to pass House Bill 15-1201. This measure would create a grant program for boards of cooperative educational services to help small school districts consolidate administrative services. The bill was introduced with a $10 million price tag, but it emerged from Senate Ed with only $2 million. And now the measure has to be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

School Finance

How much are Indianapolis teachers paid? Here are the highest and lowest paid districts in the city

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

As teachers across the country rally for more education funding and higher salaries, policymakers and the public are paying renewed attention to how much educators are paid.

Nationwide, stagnant teacher pay coupled with plentiful well-paying openings in other fields means that it’s even harder for principals and administrators to fill open positions. For some teachers, low pay is one reason they leave the classroom altogether, whether to become administrators or find another career.

In Indiana, cash-strapped districts often struggle to pay for raises even for their current staff — making it difficult to retain teachers. Educators in Indianapolis have lots of schools to choose from, and teachers can increase their pay by heading to nearby districts.

Educators in Indiana school districts made an average of about $48,743 last year, according to the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board. Pay is higher in districts in the state’s capitol, but it varies widely, with educators in the lowest paying district earning about $11,000 less on average than teachers in the top paid district. (The board only collects data on districts with teachers unions so it does not include average pay for teachers in charter schools.)

When teachers with particularly high demand skills switch jobs, they can also boost their earning by moving higher on the pay scale.

Average teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

One reason why average pay might be higher in some districts than others is because the pay scale is higher. Starting pay in Beech Grove Schools, for example, is $38,000 per year. In Speedway Schools, a district with consistently high pay, teachers earn a minimum of $44,252.

Minimum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

The gap is even wider for experienced educators. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the pay scale sets the maximum salary at $72,740. That’s almost $14,000 less than the max pay for teachers in Speedway — $86,702. (Some teachers may earn more because they are still paid based on older pay scales with higher caps.)

Maximum teacher pay in Marion County 2016-17

Source: Indiana Education Employment Relations Board collective bargaining report. (Image by Sam Park)

But there’s another reason why some districts have lower average pay than others — they have more inexperienced teachers. Both Beech Grove and Indianapolis Public Schools have higher floors and ceiling for pay then they did in 2013-2014. Nonetheless, the average pay in those districts has declined, likely because they have more inexperienced teachers with lower salaries.

This year, both districts have relatively high numbers of teachers in their first year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. In Indianapolis Public Schools, nearly 10 percent of certified educators are new to the classroom. In both Beech Grove and Warren Township Schools, about 7 percent of educators are new.