Starting on the wrong foot

School funding bill off to rocky start after complaints of “ambush”

Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner had to defend their school finance bill against complaints that it was rushed.

Everybody likes the fact that the proposed 2016-17 school finance bill doesn’t increase the K-12 funding shortfall, but the measure’s rushed introduction Monday ruffled a lot of feathers.

The measure would allocate $6.4 billion for basic school operations in 2016-17, up from $6.2 billion this school year. The bill would hold the K-12 funding shortfall, often called the negative factor, at $831 million, the same level as this year. See the chart at the bottom of this article for the impact on individual districts.

The bill is seen as modest good news for school districts, who’ve faced tight funding since 2009, when declines in state revenues forced substantial cuts. The state constitution requires base K-12 funding – about 75 percent of total support – to increase every year by inflation and enrollment. The bill does that.

Holding the shortfall to $831 million is considered a victory because projections made before the session convened put that figure as high as $905 million.

The bill would set average per-pupil funding at $7,424, up from this year’s $7,312.

The bill’s rushed introduction left members of the House Education Committee scrambling to understand it when they convened only about 90 minutes after House Bill 16-1442 was formally introduced.

“To rush this most important bill through the process” was unfair to members and to the state’s school districts, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

Sen. Owen Hill, whose Senate Education Committee will hear the bill later, was more blunt. “I was shocked. … This ambush was unacceptable,” arguing that House members were ambushed because they faced with voting on a bill they didn’t had time to review.

Wilson and a couple of other GOP members harped on the issue throughout the 80-minute hearing, to the irritation of chair Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner said the measure came up when it did because it needs to move in tandem with the main state budget bill, also introduced Monday. The budget and companion measures, including school finance, were finished over the weekend, so Monday was the first opportunity to introduce them. The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

She said the school measure is “a bill we should all be cheering about.”

Her cosponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, also tried to downplay the complaints. “I don’t think there are many major issues we can’t deal with despite the short notice.” He noted that the JBC had to trim other parts of the budget like transportation and Medicaid in order to set school funding at the proposed levels.

Democrats control the House, so a few irritated Republicans aren’t likely to change the bill much. The GOP-majority Senate may be more troublesome for the bill.

Hill said rushed House consideration of the bill short-changed public review and testimony. He indicated Senate Education will take a longer look at the bill and likely will consider amendments to expand parent choice. Hill was mad enough about the situation that he sent out an email blast criticizing what the House did.

The House panel spent a lot of time on two secondary elements of the bill.

The first of those would change current state law that sets minimum funding for very small districts at 50 students, even if they have a smaller number of actual students. The bill proposes a system under which the floor would be 30 students for the very smallest districts.

The change could be a big blow to the 19-student Agate district on the eastern plains. Hamner proposed an amendment that would delay the cut for Agate by a year, but the committee voted that down.

Another section of the bill would modestly increase funding for a handful of districts that have between 4,000 and 5,000 students. Some of the affected districts are in Hamner and Rankin’s House districts. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said that “benefits the sponsors, which we’ll discuss on the floor.”

The committee passed the finance bill 9-2. It goes Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee, along with the main budget, House Bill 16-1405. That hearing should be a formality, but finance bill debate on the floor later this week could be lively.

Learn more about the bill is this analysis by legislative staff.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.