Point counter-point

Lawyers offer clashing views on Colorado school funding shortfall

The two sides in a key school funding case offered sharply different interpretations in oral arguments before the Colorado Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The lawyers’ cases were interrupted repeatedly by the justices trying to tease out the meaning of the lawyers’ arguments.

The arguments were a key step in a lawsuit named Dwyer v. State, which challenges the constitutionality of the formula that the legislature has used since 2010 to reduce annual K-12 support and balance the state budget.

Lawyer Sean Connelly, representing the plaintiffs, argued that the formula (known as the negative factor), was devised with “the sole intent of circumventing the plain language and intent of Amendment 23,” the constitutional amendment that governs school funding.

But Senior Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Fero, representing the state, argued that Amendment 23 has clear language requiring annual growth only in “base” school funding, not all K-12 support. The language “provides the only answer the court needs because its meaning is plain,” Fero said.

The two sides have different interpretations of such key terms as “base funding” and “per-student funding,” a gap alluded to by Justice Nathan Coats.

“Reading the two sets of briefs, it’s like two ships passing in the night,” Coats remarked.

The case has crucial implications for Colorado’s school funding system and the overall state budget.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could mean hundreds of millions in additional school support in future years but a possible severe squeeze on other state programs, including higher education. High court rejection of the suit likely would set a “new normal” for K-12 funding and be a bitter disappointment for school districts.

Do your homework

At issue is the meaning of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that requires annual K-12 spending increases based on inflation and enrollment growth.

In 2010, the legislature created the negative factor formula to control school spending as lawmakers struggled to balance the overall state budget. The legal reasoning behind the negative factor is that A23 applies only to base per-student funding, not to additional state funds districts receive to compensate for staff cost of living, size, number of at-risk students, and other factors.

Prior to the budget crisis brought on by the 2008 recession, the legislature calculated K-12 increases based on both base and factor funding.

Fero argued that Amendment 23’s definition of the base is clear, and “there can be no question what this language refers to.”

The plaintiffs argue that use of the negative factor is “a charade.” Connolly said, “We should win because the state’s premise is wrong.”

Timothy Macdonald, the second plaintiffs’ lawyer who spoke, said use of the negative factor “renders Amendment 23 a hoax.”

Connelly and Madonald argued that the actual effect of using the negative factor has been to cut base funding, not factor funding.

Fero stuck to his position, saying, “I think they are trying to overcomplicate the case.”

Coats summed up the back and forth by saying, “It’s a question of what the base consists of.”

Use of the negative factor has created an annual funding shortfalls of about $1 billion. Despite improving state revenues and district pressure on lawmakers, the legislature has been able to make only modest reductions in the negative factor. It’s pegged at $855 million for the 2015-2016 school year. School funding will be $6.24 billion next year, compared to $5.93 billion in the school year that ends June 30.

Background of the case

The suit was filed in June 2014 by a group of parents, school districts and education organizations. The lead plaintiffs are Lindi and Paul Dwyer, who have four daughters in the Kit Carson district, and the case takes their name. A Denver judge rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the suit last December, sending the case to the state’s Supreme Court.

In addition to Connelly and Macdonald, the plaintiffs are being represented by Boulder public interest lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt.

The Dwyer case has attracted several friend-of-the-briefs in both sides. Briefs supporting the plaintiffs have been filed by the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association, among others. A brief supporting the state’s position was filed by several business groups, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

There’s no set deadline for the seven-member high court to issue a ruling.

Dwyer is the second major school-funding case to reach the high court in two years.

In late May 2013 the court rejected plaintiffs’ claims in the long-running Lobato v. State suit, which was a much broader challenge to the state’s school funding system. (See Chalkbeat’s Lobato archive here.)

The court issued its Lobato ruling less than three months after hearing oral arguments.

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”