Ready to rumble

Will Colorado lawmakers rekindle the bipartisan spirit to take on these education issues?

State Reps. Millie Hammer and Barbara McLachlan, both Democrats, speak during the 2017 special session. (Denver Post File photo)

When state lawmakers ended their regular business in May, leaders under the gold dome congratulated themselves for finding a long list of bipartisan compromises — including deals on some of the most prickly education issues.

Education debates over charter school funding, a diploma credential for students who speak two languages and high school testing that had befuddled lawmakers for years were settled with bipartisan support.

But after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called legislators back to work to fix a glitch in one of those hard-fought compromises, talk of bipartisanship went straight out the window.

Now, on the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor — he’s term-limited — it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

While education lobbyists and other Capitol observers are wary major victories can be achieved, some of education’s most influential lawmakers are sounding a bipartisan tone.

“I’ve loved working with Brittany,” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, referring to state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s an honor to work with someone who challenges my thinking. And yet we always come together to make sure kids have the very best possible education.”

Pettersen echoed Hill’s bipartisan sentiment.

“I know things get complicated during an election year,” she said. “But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and I hope to do it again.”

Here’s a rundown of what should loom large on the education front this legislative session, which opens Wednesday:

Pension reform is going to take up a lot time and headspace, but a resolution is far from certain.

The state’s pension system, known as PERA, is in a precarious situation. While it’s nowhere near the crisis level it was seven years ago, the system’s funding levels have declined. PERA oversees retirement benefits to 566,000 current and former public employees — and many are school district employees.

There are a number of different proposals floating around the legislature. One is from the PERA governing board, another from the governor, one from state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, and another from legislative staff.

If lawmakers do act this session — and that’s a big “if” — they’re likely to want to put their own mark any reforms.

“I can’t imagine anything gets done this session,” said Hill, who is also the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely play a large role in shaping any reform package.

Hill suggested that more time is needed to study the issue and craft the best reform package possible — not the quickest.

Some Senate Democrats are hopeful a compromise can be reached, but are also inclined to take time on overhauling PERA.

“I do think a compromise can be had, but it’s going to take us all session to get it,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “I’m worried if we try to rush something through, it could get too political and it won’t be a good bipartisan solution like we did a few years ago.”

School funding is likely to see a boon — barring any unforeseen surprises.

Unlike last year when school budget writers were bracing for another round of cuts, things are looking pretty rosy on the school funding front. In November, the governor requested an additional $343 per student. That number is likely to go up given that the state has even more revenue than was expected in November and lawmakers love bragging about how much more money they send to schools than the governor requests.

However, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and chair of the legislature’s budget committee, sounded a cautious note.

“Clearly we’re in a much better place,” she said. “But we still have a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns include how state lawmakers plan to improve the state’s roads and highways — a huge piece of unfinished business from the 2017 session — and whether Congress will continue to fund the children’s health care program.

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the state budget to deal with the shortcomings of Congress in regards to that program,” she said.

Don’t expect a massive rewrite of the state’s school funding formula — yet.

One of last year’s bipartisan accomplishments was the formation of a legislative committee to study — and ultimately change — the way Colorado funds its schools. The committee is scheduled to end its first round of meetings Tuesday — with little to show for it.

But that’s by design, several committee members said.

“The common understanding of the challenge is becoming more well-defined,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who co-sponsored the bill that created the committee. “I’m pleased we’re making headway. And for the chance to drag our finance model into the 21st Century, I’m willing to be patient.”

One possible bill that could emerge from the committee’s work is a change to how the state counts its students. Right now, schools receive funding based on how many students are present for school on a specific day in October. Lawmakers could come up with a new system that better tracks student attendance and mobility to send a more precise amount of money to schools.

While some lawmakers are content with taking their time to develop a new formula to fund schools, a group of superintendents is preparing to charge ahead with its proposal.

The group, led in part by Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, has been working with state Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley, to put the proposal into a bill.

Among the changes the superintendents seek: fully fund kindergarten students and increase funding for students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

However, Cooper said the superintendents and Young have not decided whether to introduce the bill.

“We’ll know by January if it sees the light of day,” Cooper said.

A major update to the state’s school accountability law is unlikely. But one lawmaker wants to give struggling schools another option.

Last year Lundeen and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, were working behind the scenes to update the state’s school accountability system. The state education department and leaders of struggling schools had identified where the 2009 law was ambiguous and needed clarification. But the two lawmakers could not get the bill into fighting shape.

“We continue to talk about this,” Lundeen said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have a bill.”

Meanwhile, Zenzinger, the Arvada Democrat, said she will introduce a bill that will give the State Board of Education an additional option for schools that don’t improve test scores within five years.

Currently, the board can order a school to be closed, converted to a charter school, develop an “innovation plan” that would free the school from some local and state policies, or hand over all or some managerial duties to a private third party. Zenzinger wants to include a “community schools model” to the mix.

The model, which is growing in popularity thanks in part to an endorsement by national teachers unions, transforms schools into hubs for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes for parents, medical care, and additional resources for families.

The idea behind the model is that learning can improve by first tackling poverty and other challenges facing students and their families.

“It’s going to offer more resources and a different approach,” Zenzinger said.

Here are a few other storylines and bills to watch for:

  • Taking on the teacher shortage is a top priority for House Democrats on the education committee. And they could have up to $10 million if the budget committee approves Hickenlooper’s request. But they don’t have any specific bills yet. Expect Republicans to push back on any policy that doesn’t alter the status quo — especially on teacher licensing.
  • This could be the year lawmakers send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying a bill that would nearly fully fund kindergarten without spending any more tax dollars. That’s because his bill would reduce some funding for upperclassmen in high school.
  • Look for a big push to expand concurrent enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit at state universities and colleges, from Lundeen and Garnett. If the bill passes, it would be the third year in a row the bipartisan duo score major education legislation. (See data privacy, the committee studying school funding.) However, there’s also concern coming from the budget committee staff that some schools are abusing the “early colleges” model to score extra funding for students and not delivering on the promise of an associate’s degree within six years.
  • Just when you thought the debate over early childhood literacy was over, it’s back. Hamner, the Dillon Democrat, was one of the original sponsors of the READ Act, a bill that reformed how the state catches reading disabilities in its youngest students. She wants to double down on parts of the policy that are working and scrap what isn’t. Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the State Board of Education, also has expressed interest in pushing legislation that aims to boost early literacy. Durham and Hamner have been on opposing sides on a similar issue before. Can the two work together? Hamner says she hopes so.
  • One of last session’s biggest surprises was the death of a bipartisan bill that would have prohibited the state’s public schools from suspending its youngest students in most cases. The bill would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, but it was killed over objections by some of the state’s rural schools. Look for the bill to come back but perhaps with different sponsors in the Senate.

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee is looking at new jobs

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district could have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.