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.

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.