money money money

Advocacy groups to Colorado elected officials: Step up and fund our schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater raises her hand for assistance while students work on their iPads.

A coalition of education advocacy groups has fired the first shot in what’s shaping up to be a brutal battle at the statehouse next year over school funding.

Led by Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit group that advocates for more resources for schools, the coalition is calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper, the legislature and the State Board of Education to create a three-year plan “restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.”

“We’re calling on everyone to step it up,” said Lisa Weil, Great Education Colorado’s executive director. “It’s just not sustainable to think our current trajectory of school funding will produce graduates ready for the workforce to support the economy we all want and expect.”

Recent budget forecasts have painted a gloomy outlook for the state’s finances, which could mean cuts for schools across the state.

The governor’s office will submit its proposed budget to lawmakers Nov. 1, giving school districts their first look at what to expect for the 2017-18 school year.

If the governor’s budget calls for across-the-board cuts, it would be the first time since 2012 that state spending for schools has not increased. Last year was the first year that the state’s average funding per student exceeded pre-Great Recession levels. But advocates and school leaders continue to argue funding should be much higher — by about a billion dollars.

School funding has always been a touchy subject in Colorado, a low-tax state in which lawmakers have little say over funding priorities and tax levels. Several constitutional amendments do that for them.

“This issue is much bigger than just the legislature and the governor,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “If we could actually vote on something in the legislature that would take care of this, I think we’d have that opportunity. But we’re very limited.”

Weil said she hopes lawmakers and the governor, who is entering his last two years in office, get creative. But her organization is stopping short of specific recommendations — for now.

“What we know,” she said, “is that it’s going to require every legislator on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to make this their own personal mission to figure out how to do right by the students in our schools today.”

Read the coalition’s letter here:

October 27, 2016

An Open Letter to State Leaders:

As representatives of statewide and community organizations, we know what our children and communities require to thrive:

  • Vibrant public schools with qualified, well-prepared and culturally competent teachers for every student regardless of where they live or how they learn;
  • Learning opportunities that meet the needs and curiosity of each and every child;
  • Individual attention, support and mental health services that ensure that no child’s future is defined by deprivations, challenges, or trauma.

We also know that every year these student needs go unfulfilled is a year that our students cannot replace or redo. The urgency of now could not be greater.

We appreciate that the coming legislative year poses significant challenges for you.  Despite having one of the strongest economies in the nation, the Colorado constitution requires that you hold back funds from the fundamental services that help our communities thrive – vibrant public schools, public health and safety, affordable college, safe roads – in order to fund small, individual taxpayer rebates.

Now is the time for us to consider the building blocks necessary to ensure prosperity in the future.  Colorado’s rapid economic and population growth requires investment in the Coloradans whom we hope will lead, serve and work in our communities in the decades to come.

Education is the bedrock of our strength as a state. It is in that context that the undersigned organizations call on you to apply the following minimum standards to your consideration of budget and education policy this year. We ask that you:

  1. Place Colorado on a three-year path to restoring total funding, which will require a 2017-18 budget that does not allow average per pupil funding to fall farther behind inflation.
  2. Reject policies that exacerbate or increase the already existing inequities between districts. This includes rejecting unfunded mandates.
  3. Reject policies that will pit children against each other.  Address the inequities in learning opportunities to Colorado’s children through significant additional resources.
  4. Ensure that the all-too-scarce public dollars allocated to K-12 education are only used for public schools.

We do not accept – and hope that you will not accept – the notion that adequate and equitable support for school funding is something that is simply beyond your authority or Colorado’s ability.  Education serves as the foundation of individual opportunity, community vitality and economic prosperity. We ask for the children of Colorado and for the future of our great state that our elected leaders be bold, visionary and united in addressing this funding crisis.

Thank you for keeping the future of Colorado in your minds as you propose and consider the state budget.

Sincerely,

American Federation of Teachers-Colorado
The Arc of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties
Colorado Council of Churches
Colorado Education Association
Coloradans for Educational Excellence
Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization
Colorado Parent Teacher Association
Colorado School Finance Project
Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition
Great Education Colorado
NAACP CO MT WY State-Area Conference
Padres Unidos
Project VOYCE
Support Jeffco Kids
Urban League of Metropolitan Denver

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.