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.

More money

‘We need the funding, and so do our kids.’ Colorado teachers take to the streets for Amendment 73

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer
Denver teachers line Colfax Avenue to urge voters to approve Amendment 73, a tax increase to raise money for education.

Waving “Yes on Amendment 73” signs, Denver teachers formed red-shirted clusters along Colfax Avenue Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to get people to support teachers,” said Danette Slater, an elementary teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver. “We need the funding, and so do our kids.”

Amendment 73 would raise Colorado’s corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate on people earning more than $150,000 a year to generate $1.6 billion a year in additional funding for education. The state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any proposed tax increase. Two previous attempts to raise taxes for education have failed.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Funding,” said Slater’s handmade sign.

The Denver demonstration was one of 27 teacher actions around the state, as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, prepares for a major push during October to rally support for Amendment 73. Organizers with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association had hoped for a larger turnout, with as many as a thousand teachers lining Colfax from East High School to the Colorado Education Association headquarters at Grant Street and Colfax near the Capitol. Instead, a few hundred teachers formed a series of small groups at key intersections.

Denver Public Schools may have dampened turnout with a memo to building principals saying that teachers who wanted to leave school early to engage in advocacy must take unpaid leave and giving principals the authority to deny leave and discipline any teachers who left anyway.

The small numbers did not dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers and community members who were demonstrating.

“It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week,” said M.J. Jobe, a parent volunteer in the Cherry Creek district who was demonstrating with her husband Jarrad Jobe, a Denver Public Schools teacher. “Everyone is here because they care about kids and care about education. If we vote no, what kind of message are we sending to our kids?”

Passing drivers honked their support, and the teachers cheered in response.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado opposes Amendment 73. He said the tax measure has been sold to teachers as a way to raise pay, but there’s no guarantee that the money will reach teachers’ paychecks or improve educational outcomes for students.

Ragland points to trends over the last several decades in which teacher salaries have decreased when adjusted for inflation, even as more money has gone to schools. Administrative costs eat up a larger share of school budgets, something Ragland believes is driven as much or more by growing regulation at the federal and state level than by high administrative salaries.

“The trend is bad, and just adding more money is not going to change those trends,” he said. “The problem is real, but the solution that Amendment 73 offers is not.”

PHOTO: Aurora Education Association
Aurora teachers demonstrate in support of Amendment 73.

While education funding has increased in recent years with the strong economy, Colorado lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion from schools since the Great Recession. Colorado currently ranks 28th among U.S. states in per-pupil funding and 31st in the country for teacher pay, but the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – the difference between teacher pay and the wages earned by other professionals with similar levels of education – is among the worst in the nation.

Like many Denver teachers, Jarrad Jobe, a science teacher at Denver Center for International Studies Baker, has a lot of unanswered questions about administrative spending in the district. (Denver administrators, for their part, have tried to reassure the public with new online budget tools.) He has 35 students in each class, and his classroom doesn’t have a proper whiteboard. Jobe believes too much money gets spent on “middle management,” but he also believes the entire pie needs to get larger. Everything has gotten more expensive, and school funding hasn’t kept pace, he said.

M.J. Jobe has a close eye on Cherry Creek’s finances from her seat on a parent advisory committee. Jobe believes the wealthier suburban district is well run and transparent about its spending, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the Denver metro area. But teachers don’t have money for field trips, and the band program exists only due to the private fundraising efforts of parents, she said.

Dakota Prosch, who works with Slater at Sandoval, said she’s relying on promises made by the Denver school board that teacher pay will be a top priority if Amendment 73 passes. Opponents of the measure also fear higher taxes will hurt Colorado’s economy, but Prosch said struggling schools and teachers looking for better opportunities elsewhere will also hurt the economy.

“You can’t have good schools without good teachers, and you can’t have good teachers when across the border you can earn $10,000 more and be in a low-cost area,” she said. Teachers in Wyoming have much higher average pay than their colleagues in Colorado.

Standing nearby, Becka Hendricks said the idea that new revenue will go to ever-increasing administrative costs is one of her fears, even as she demonstrates in favor of Amendment 73.

But at the end of the day, she believes schools need more money. Hendricks, who teaches math to students aged 17 to 21 at Emily Griffith High School, said too many schools don’t even have basic materials or the support staff that students need to be successful. Class sizes are too large, and teacher salaries are too low.

“When we fight for these things with the district, the district’s answer over and over again is, ‘We don’t have the money,’” she said. “If this passes, we can say, ‘We know you have the money.’”

where the money goes

The fight for teacher raises and 4 other takeaways from our IPS referendum forum

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Panelists at the Chalkbeat forum on the IPS tax referendums.

Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Rosa Vazquez had a point to make, and at its core, it was simple: “We need more.”

“It’s difficult when we attempt to send a student to go have a conversation with a counselor and the counselor is too busy, overwhelmed,” said Vazquez, an English as a new language teacher at Arsenal Technical High School, which she said is struggling to serve students who transferred in when the district closed three other campuses last year. “We need more counselors. Our teachers need smaller class sizes.”

Vazquez was one of five panelists gathered Thursday for a forum hosted by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Indianapolis Recorder, and the Indianapolis Public Library to discuss two tax measures on the ballot in November aimed at raising more money for the school system. One referendum would raise $220 million to pay for operating expenses. The second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements.

The panel also featured IPS Board President Michael O’Connor, IPS chief financial officer Weston Young, Indy Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher, and Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer.

The success or failure of the referendums will have far-reaching implications for the cash-strapped district for years to come, reshaping the education of more than 30,000 of students.

We have five takeaways from the panel.

  1. Boosting teacher pay is the central issue

Teacher pay is the focal point of the referendum to raise operating funds for Indianapolis Public Schools. On the panel, nearly everyone agreed that the extra money needs to be used to increase teacher salaries.

Vazquez said her colleagues often have to work second jobs to support their families. Low pay also leads many teachers to leave for other districts, and students ultimately suffer from high turnover, she said.

“Our students are important,” Vazquez added. “They do matter. They do deserve a chance. And being an inner city should not be a downfall for them.”

Many teachers in the district still make less because of pay freezes during the recession, and to make up for the difference, Vazquez said the district may need to give dramatic raises of 10 percent or more.

Young also pointed to one reason pay may be lower in Indianapolis Public Schools than in many of the surrounding school systems. Most of the districts in Marion County have successfully passed referendums to increase school funding in recent years, he said.

“It’s hard to compete for wages and retain high quality teachers when everybody around you has increased their cash flow and you haven’t,” he added.

O’Connor said the board is aiming to ensure its teachers are among the highest paid in Indiana. He hopes the referendum funding gets the district close to that point. “We’re committed to making sure the money generated goes to teacher salaries,” he said.

  1. There are areas of disagreement

How much money to send to innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by outside nonprofit and charter operators, was the most contentious issue at the forum.

The teachers in those schools are not employed by the district, so they would not automatically benefit from a proposed pay raise funded by the referendum. But the district will send some of the money raised to innovation network schools, and many of those schools will also benefit because they receive services, such as special education, from the district.

If the district wins support for the tax measures “traditional public schools with this referendum should be priority,” said Vazquez.

O’Connor acknowledged that the district has limited resources to give schools. He argued that innovation schools are a good strategy that is improving outcomes for students. And, he said, the district is still fully committed to traditional schools in the district.

“We’ll continue to make those investments at the teacher level and at the classroom level,” O’Connor said.

  1. Even if the referendum passes, the district is still expected to make huge cuts

The $272 million in additional funding the district seeks is substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined. The lower request is the culmination of months of wrangling between the district and Indy Chamber.

The business group became deeply involved in the effort because its members had concerns about the initial request, Fisher said. “There were concerns about the viability of the referendum — whether it would actually pass,” he said. “We did not want to see the referendum fail.”

In part, the district was able to lower its request by making more optimistic projections about future funding, Young said. But for the new, reduced request to work — and for the district to find money for substantial pay raises — Indianapolis Public Schools must make drastic cuts to its expenses. Those could include closing schools and relying on public transportation for high schoolers instead of yellow buses.

Ultimately, the goal of the chamber’s proposal is to improve the quality of the district and set it on a “sustainable fiscal path,” said Fisher. “We can’t continue to have this manage by crisis.”

  1. Safety is top of mind

Much of the discussion was devoted to the operating referendum, which will help pay for daily expenses such as salaries. But the district is also pursuing a $52 million capital referendum that will be used to pay for building improvements, primarily designed to make schools safer.

In the wake of school shootings like the one in Noblesville, school districts are turning to referendums to raise money for safety improvements, DeBoer said.

“Every time we have an event like in Noblesville it alerts people to the need for safety, and it’s the world that we live in,” he said.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the referendum would pay for safety improvements including secure entrances, new fire safety systems, and improved emergency communication systems.

Because many of the district’s buildings are more than half a century old, retrofitting is more expensive but it is still essential, said O’Connor. “The vast majority of our capital investment is in safety,” he said.

  1. Tax referendums may be the new normal for Central Indiana

Hoosier schools have almost exclusively relied on state funding in recent years. State lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2010, and those funds can now only go toward things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities.

Across Indiana, 60 percent of school districts have never tried a referendum, said DeBoer, who studies referendums. In Marion County and the surrounding suburbs, however, property tax referendums have become the new normal.

“The passage rates have been increasing over the last 10 years,” he said. All the referendums on the ballot in May passed. The economy is improving, district campaigns are improving, and “perhaps the public is coming to accept that is part of … the normal way we fund schools,” he added.

Watch the full forum