one hurdle down

Charter school funding bill clears Senate Education Committee

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

A bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

Senate Bill 61 advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Supporters testified during a hearing last week that charter school students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year.

Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing. Currently, it’s up to districts whether to share revenues from local tax increases with charter schools, and practices vary.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides. Under the bill, charters would get a share from such tax measures approved by voters in the past and any that win approval in the future.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. It is expected to win Senate approval but its future is cloudier in the Democratic-controlled House. Similar legislative efforts have failed in the past.

“What this bill is really about is the funding disparities that exist,” Williams told the Senate committee Wednesday. “Charters are public schools. They are schools that all our children attend … I don’t think any kid should be systematically underfunded because of the type of school they attend.”

Democrats on the education committee raised a number of concerns. Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said that while she fully supports school choice, the state has not been adequately funding the public school system.

“We are in a financial bind as a state,” Todd said. “I don’t believe that it is our role to step in and tell the local school districts what they have to do and how they are going to spend their money. Where does that stop?”

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who represents portions of Jefferson County, said she struggled with the bill. She too cited the financial pressures on districts, which continue to face shortfalls under Colorado’s complicated school funding system.

“I really feel at this time I can’t tie the hands of my local district people with another mandate from the state,” she said.

Sen. Tim Neville echoed other Republicans in saying he supports the bill to bring equality to school funding. He also pointed out that mill levy overrides approved by voters this fall included no language excluding charter schools.

The committee vote was 4-3, with Republicans Hill, Neville, Bob Gardner and Kevin Priola voting yes, and Democrats Todd, Zenzinger and Mike Merrifield voting no.

More money

‘We need the funding, and so do our kids.’ Colorado teachers take to the streets for Amendment 73

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer
Denver teachers line Colfax Avenue to urge voters to approve Amendment 73, a tax increase to raise money for education.

Waving “Yes on Amendment 73” signs, Denver teachers formed red-shirted clusters along Colfax Avenue Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to get people to support teachers,” said Danette Slater, an elementary teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver. “We need the funding, and so do our kids.”

Amendment 73 would raise Colorado’s corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate on people earning more than $150,000 a year to generate $1.6 billion a year in additional funding for education. The state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any proposed tax increase. Two previous attempts to raise taxes for education have failed.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Funding,” said Slater’s handmade sign.

The Denver demonstration was one of 27 teacher actions around the state, as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, prepares for a major push during October to rally support for Amendment 73. Organizers with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association had hoped for a larger turnout, with as many as a thousand teachers lining Colfax from East High School to the Colorado Education Association headquarters at Grant Street and Colfax near the Capitol. Instead, a few hundred teachers formed a series of small groups at key intersections.

Denver Public Schools may have dampened turnout with a memo to building principals saying that teachers who wanted to leave school early to engage in advocacy must take unpaid leave and giving principals the authority to deny leave and discipline any teachers who left anyway.

The small numbers did not dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers and community members who were demonstrating.

“It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week,” said M.J. Jobe, a parent volunteer in the Cherry Creek district who was demonstrating with her husband Jarrad Jobe, a Denver Public Schools teacher. “Everyone is here because they care about kids and care about education. If we vote no, what kind of message are we sending to our kids?”

Passing drivers honked their support, and the teachers cheered in response.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado opposes Amendment 73. He said the tax measure has been sold to teachers as a way to raise pay, but there’s no guarantee that the money will reach teachers’ paychecks or improve educational outcomes for students.

Ragland points to trends over the last several decades in which teacher salaries have decreased when adjusted for inflation, even as more money has gone to schools. Administrative costs eat up a larger share of school budgets, something Ragland believes is driven as much or more by growing regulation at the federal and state level than by high administrative salaries.

“The trend is bad, and just adding more money is not going to change those trends,” he said. “The problem is real, but the solution that Amendment 73 offers is not.”

PHOTO: Aurora Education Association
Aurora teachers demonstrate in support of Amendment 73.

While education funding has increased in recent years with the strong economy, Colorado lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion from schools since the Great Recession. Colorado currently ranks 28th among U.S. states in per-pupil funding and 31st in the country for teacher pay, but the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – the difference between teacher pay and the wages earned by other professionals with similar levels of education – is among the worst in the nation.

Like many Denver teachers, Jarrad Jobe, a science teacher at Denver Center for International Studies Baker, has a lot of unanswered questions about administrative spending in the district. (Denver administrators, for their part, have tried to reassure the public with new online budget tools.) He has 35 students in each class, and his classroom doesn’t have a proper whiteboard. Jobe believes too much money gets spent on “middle management,” but he also believes the entire pie needs to get larger. Everything has gotten more expensive, and school funding hasn’t kept pace, he said.

M.J. Jobe has a close eye on Cherry Creek’s finances from her seat on a parent advisory committee. Jobe believes the wealthier suburban district is well run and transparent about its spending, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the Denver metro area. But teachers don’t have money for field trips, and the band program exists only due to the private fundraising efforts of parents, she said.

Dakota Prosch, who works with Slater at Sandoval, said she’s relying on promises made by the Denver school board that teacher pay will be a top priority if Amendment 73 passes. Opponents of the measure also fear higher taxes will hurt Colorado’s economy, but Prosch said struggling schools and teachers looking for better opportunities elsewhere will also hurt the economy.

“You can’t have good schools without good teachers, and you can’t have good teachers when across the border you can earn $10,000 more and be in a low-cost area,” she said. Teachers in Wyoming have much higher average pay than their colleagues in Colorado.

Standing nearby, Becka Hendricks said the idea that new revenue will go to ever-increasing administrative costs is one of her fears, even as she demonstrates in favor of Amendment 73.

But at the end of the day, she believes schools need more money. Hendricks, who teaches math to students aged 17 to 21 at Emily Griffith High School, said too many schools don’t even have basic materials or the support staff that students need to be successful. Class sizes are too large, and teacher salaries are too low.

“When we fight for these things with the district, the district’s answer over and over again is, ‘We don’t have the money,’” she said. “If this passes, we can say, ‘We know you have the money.’”

where the money goes

The fight for teacher raises and 4 other takeaways from our IPS referendum forum

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Panelists at the Chalkbeat forum on the IPS tax referendums.

Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Rosa Vazquez had a point to make, and at its core, it was simple: “We need more.”

“It’s difficult when we attempt to send a student to go have a conversation with a counselor and the counselor is too busy, overwhelmed,” said Vazquez, an English as a new language teacher at Arsenal Technical High School, which she said is struggling to serve students who transferred in when the district closed three other campuses last year. “We need more counselors. Our teachers need smaller class sizes.”

Vazquez was one of five panelists gathered Thursday for a forum hosted by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Indianapolis Recorder, and the Indianapolis Public Library to discuss two tax measures on the ballot in November aimed at raising more money for the school system. One referendum would raise $220 million to pay for operating expenses. The second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements.

The panel also featured IPS Board President Michael O’Connor, IPS chief financial officer Weston Young, Indy Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher, and Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer.

The success or failure of the referendums will have far-reaching implications for the cash-strapped district for years to come, reshaping the education of more than 30,000 of students.

We have five takeaways from the panel.

  1. Boosting teacher pay is the central issue

Teacher pay is the focal point of the referendum to raise operating funds for Indianapolis Public Schools. On the panel, nearly everyone agreed that the extra money needs to be used to increase teacher salaries.

Vazquez said her colleagues often have to work second jobs to support their families. Low pay also leads many teachers to leave for other districts, and students ultimately suffer from high turnover, she said.

“Our students are important,” Vazquez added. “They do matter. They do deserve a chance. And being an inner city should not be a downfall for them.”

Many teachers in the district still make less because of pay freezes during the recession, and to make up for the difference, Vazquez said the district may need to give dramatic raises of 10 percent or more.

Young also pointed to one reason pay may be lower in Indianapolis Public Schools than in many of the surrounding school systems. Most of the districts in Marion County have successfully passed referendums to increase school funding in recent years, he said.

“It’s hard to compete for wages and retain high quality teachers when everybody around you has increased their cash flow and you haven’t,” he added.

O’Connor said the board is aiming to ensure its teachers are among the highest paid in Indiana. He hopes the referendum funding gets the district close to that point. “We’re committed to making sure the money generated goes to teacher salaries,” he said.

  1. There are areas of disagreement

How much money to send to innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by outside nonprofit and charter operators, was the most contentious issue at the forum.

The teachers in those schools are not employed by the district, so they would not automatically benefit from a proposed pay raise funded by the referendum. But the district will send some of the money raised to innovation network schools, and many of those schools will also benefit because they receive services, such as special education, from the district.

If the district wins support for the tax measures “traditional public schools with this referendum should be priority,” said Vazquez.

O’Connor acknowledged that the district has limited resources to give schools. He argued that innovation schools are a good strategy that is improving outcomes for students. And, he said, the district is still fully committed to traditional schools in the district.

“We’ll continue to make those investments at the teacher level and at the classroom level,” O’Connor said.

  1. Even if the referendum passes, the district is still expected to make huge cuts

The $272 million in additional funding the district seeks is substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined. The lower request is the culmination of months of wrangling between the district and Indy Chamber.

The business group became deeply involved in the effort because its members had concerns about the initial request, Fisher said. “There were concerns about the viability of the referendum — whether it would actually pass,” he said. “We did not want to see the referendum fail.”

In part, the district was able to lower its request by making more optimistic projections about future funding, Young said. But for the new, reduced request to work — and for the district to find money for substantial pay raises — Indianapolis Public Schools must make drastic cuts to its expenses. Those could include closing schools and relying on public transportation for high schoolers instead of yellow buses.

Ultimately, the goal of the chamber’s proposal is to improve the quality of the district and set it on a “sustainable fiscal path,” said Fisher. “We can’t continue to have this manage by crisis.”

  1. Safety is top of mind

Much of the discussion was devoted to the operating referendum, which will help pay for daily expenses such as salaries. But the district is also pursuing a $52 million capital referendum that will be used to pay for building improvements, primarily designed to make schools safer.

In the wake of school shootings like the one in Noblesville, school districts are turning to referendums to raise money for safety improvements, DeBoer said.

“Every time we have an event like in Noblesville it alerts people to the need for safety, and it’s the world that we live in,” he said.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the referendum would pay for safety improvements including secure entrances, new fire safety systems, and improved emergency communication systems.

Because many of the district’s buildings are more than half a century old, retrofitting is more expensive but it is still essential, said O’Connor. “The vast majority of our capital investment is in safety,” he said.

  1. Tax referendums may be the new normal for Central Indiana

Hoosier schools have almost exclusively relied on state funding in recent years. State lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2010, and those funds can now only go toward things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities.

Across Indiana, 60 percent of school districts have never tried a referendum, said DeBoer, who studies referendums. In Marion County and the surrounding suburbs, however, property tax referendums have become the new normal.

“The passage rates have been increasing over the last 10 years,” he said. All the referendums on the ballot in May passed. The economy is improving, district campaigns are improving, and “perhaps the public is coming to accept that is part of … the normal way we fund schools,” he added.

Watch the full forum