Funding fight

Dougco threatens state in enrollment count dispute

Leaders of the Douglas County School District say they’ll sue the Colorado Department of Education in a $4.2 million dispute over counting of high school enrollment.

The district took the spat public with a news release Thursday, two days after outgoing education Commissioner Robert Hammond responded to a district appeal in the matter.

Also on Thursday, school board President Kevin Larsen and Vice President Doug Benevento sent an accusatory and polemical letter to Hammond, writing, “We intend to pursue our remedies in the Colorado courts with all deliberate speed.”

The letter said the district “rejects the Department’s position as arbitrary, capricious and not the result of reasoned agency decision-making.”

The Larsen-Benevento letter also claimed CDE’s actions in the enrollment dispute “convey the unmistakable whiff of policy retaliation” because of district/department differences over other, unrelated matters.

Department spokeswoman Dana Smith responded, “We don’t really know what they’re referring to here, but this issue is a matter of state law. We are required to implement that.”

The department annually audits a selection of school districts to compare student enrollment against the amount of state funding allocated. Districts that received more funding than supported by enrollment data are asked to pay money back to the state. Whether students were properly classified as part-time or full-time is a common issue in the audits. Larger districts usually are audited more frequently than small ones.

The department has billed Dougco, interest free, for $4.2 million, money that was provided for a few hundred high school students CDE believes were inaccurately classified as full-time.

Behind the disagreement

The dispute focuses primarily on the interpretation of full-time and part-time and on the extent of CDE discretion in the matter.

The district news release claims, “The students involved in the audit averaged 96.7 percent of the required seat time, making it illogical and unreasonable for CDE to reduce annual funding for those specific students by half.”

The letter from the two school board members also argues, “The department clearly has the lawful discretion to make any funding reductions proportionate to the time for which the department’s audit could not account in district documents.”

But Hammond’s Tuesday letter to Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Fagan noted, “There is no provision in state law to allow for proportional funding – students are either considered full-time or part-time. … Full-time funding is based upon a student having a schedule for 360 hours, and part-time funding is available for students with schedules greater than 90 hours but less than 360 hours in the first semester.”

In contrast to district claims that CDE didn’t use its discretion properly, Hammond’s letter noted that CDE did reconsider the classification of some students and reduced the amount owed by the district. “If the traditional calculation was applied in this audit, the district liability would have increased by approximately $737,000, resulting in a total audit liability of over $5.3 million.” The audit involved the fall enrollment counts for 2012 and 2013.

The disagreement appears to be rooted in counting changes and problems sparked by the district’s decision to increase the number of periods in high school schedules.

Other district claims

The Larsen-Benevento letter fired several broadsides at the department, including:

“We intend to work expeditiously with the General Assembly to divest the department of the discretion that the department has either failed to exercise here at all or, to the extent it has exercised any discretion, has done so with such obvious incompetence and backward thinking.”

The letter also said, “It is hard to believe that, in this age of nearly constant learning through technology … the department still employs a vast bureaucracy of well-pensioned employees who seriously spend valuable time – at taxpayer expense – tallying the number of minutes that a student sits in a seat, rather than the results achieved by that student.”

Current state law contains no provisions that tie individual student performance to school funding.

Hammond is retiring, so the dispute going forward will be in the hands of Interim Commissioner Elliott Asp.

Associate Commissioner Leanne Emm said full-time problems are “a very typical audit finding. … This happens to be an uncommonly larger finding because they had an issue with so many students.”

Department also in enrollment dispute with Sheridan

The department was sued by the Sheridan school district last March in a $1 million disagreement over high school students that CDE believes weren’t eligible for state funding because they also were taking classes at Arapahoe Community College.

The state asked Sheridan to repay nearly $1 million, and the district went to court, asking that the repayment requirement be voided. The suit is pending in Denver District Court. (Get more information in this previous Chalkbeat Colorado story.)

The Sheridan case doesn’t involve the full-time/part-time issue but rather the question of funding concurrent enrollment students – those taking both high school and college classes.

Emm said CDE doesn’t have any similar disputes currently pending with other districts.

Living wages

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.