Budget squeeze

Budget panel offers a bit of extra cash for schools

Colorado schools would receive an additional $18 per student under mid-year budget adjustments approved Wednesday by the Joint Budget Committee.

Statewide average funding per pupil would be set at $7,312, compared to the $7,294 in the 2015-16 school funding law passed last spring.

The recommendation basically gives districts well less than a fifth of a loaf in terms of what they wanted from the budget adjustments.

The committee’s plan effectively mirrors a proposal by the Hickenlooper administration that also contained an $18 per student boost. The JBC’s recommendation, which requires approval by the full legislature, gets to the same place through a different mechanism.

Mid-year budget tweaks often are routine procedures to adjust school funding to account for actual enrollment and updated local revenues. Projections of those two things, not hard numbers, are used when the annual school funding law is passed every spring.

But this year’s K-12 adjustment has drawn more attention than usual because of a non-binding pledge included in the 2015-16 funding law. In simple terms, that pledge said that if the local tax revenues reported in December were larger than last spring’s estimates, the state wouldn’t reduce its share of school support. Talk last spring was that the increase would be $70 million.

Instead, the JBC’s recommendation is that the state reduce its share of 2015-16 school funding by $133 million, the actual amount of additional local revenue that came in.

Districts would get a little something from the committee’s plan. Because both overall enrollment and the number of at-risk students are lower than originally projected, the legislature could cut school funding by $24 million. But the committee agreed to let schools keep that money, which averages out to the $18 increase per student. Districts that experienced student declines would receive more per student but would lose money overall because they have fewer pupils.

Overall K-12 funding this year would remain the same as originally proposed, about $6.2 billion.

“The total program amount is spread among fewer kids than we thought, so the per-pupil amount goes up,” explained JBC staff analyst Craig Harper.

The committee’s action also affects the negative factor, the amount by which actual school funding falls short of what full support would have been under the state finance formula. The legislature uses the negative factor as a device to balance the overall state budget.

The 2015-16 shortfall was $855 million. The committee’s adjustments would reduce it to $831 million. Members also voted to introduce a bill that would hold the 2016-17 negative factor at the same level.

The Hickenlooper administration has calculated that the shortfall would need to increase by as much as $50 million to balance next year’s budget.

Final decisions on the 2016-17 budget won’t be made until after new state revenue forecasts are issued in March.

Advocates of improved school funding were disappointed by not necessarily surprised by the committee decision.

“We’re disappointed with this action, but we’re appreciative that the $24 million is retained,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger, a leading voice among superintendents on finance issues.

He noted last spring’s pledge by legislators but said, “They didn’t know what this year would look like. … I like to think that if the budget were not in such a difficult place they would have kept that pledge.”

Lisa Weil, executive director of the advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said, “The JBC just decided to use local property taxes raised specifically for schools to balance the state budget, even after stating their intent in last year’s School Finance Act to do the opposite. It’s a sad day when not even these local school dollars are used to help repay the $5 billion debt Colorado owes our students from the past seven years of cuts.”

Committee chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, also recalled the pledge during committee discussion. She noted that the budget situation differs from what lawmakers anticipated last spring and said the $24 million is at least a small nod to the pledge.

Get into the weeds in the briefing paper Harper prepared on the issue.

House Education pulls trigger on parent leave bill

It took two tries, but the House Education Committee on Wednesday voted 6-5 to advance a bill that would resurrect a state law requiring some business to give employees unpaid time off for some school activities.

A parliamentary wrangle over amendments delayed a vote at a meeting last Monday. Things went more smoothly on Wednesday, but panel members spent nearly 45 minutes debating the measure. There’s a partisan divide on the bill, and Democrats voted yes and Republicans no on the motion to send House Bill 16-1002 to the House floor.

The bill would revive a 2009 law that gives employees of companies with more than 50 workers up to 18 hours of unpaid time off a year to attend specified school events, like teacher-parent conferences. That law also gave employers various grounds on which to deny leave.

The law expired in September after an effort to continue it failed during the 2015 session. This year’s bill would reinstate the 2009 provisions, without an expiration clause.

House Democrats are pushing the bill as part of a policy agenda to help families. Republicans oppose it, arguing that it’s not necessary. The main business lobbying group, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, is neutral on the measure. If the bill passes the House it’s expected to die in the GOP-controlled Senate – just like last year.

Get details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”