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.

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”