Recap

Five takeaways from Chalkbeat’s legislative preview discussion with lawmakers

Colorado lawmakers at Chalkbeat's 2018 legislative preview event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Less than a week before legislators head back to the state Capitol, four lawmakers who work on education issues shared their thoughts at a forum Thursday morning as they prepare bills to introduce this session.

The event, hosted by Chalkbeat, featured four panelists: state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican; state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat; and state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Here are five quick takeaways from the discussion:

On the teacher shortage issue: No minimum wage for teachers
Legislators lauded the state-prepared report on how the teacher shortage is playing out in Colorado, but said there are still many ways for them to take those suggestions to change laws.

The four panelists discussed how pay, principal leadership, and accountability rules affect teachers.

“Is it absolutely imperative that we evaluate excellent teachers every single year, or not?” Zenzinger asked.

All four panelists said there is no appetite for setting a minimum wage for teachers. There may still be other ways to talk about increasing pay, however.

Lundeen said he would like to see increased flexibility at the school level and a reduction in unfunded mandates that steer money away from teacher pay.

In discussing pension reforms, he also noted that reforming the state’s pension system is important to do soon because while current teachers need a raise, money from the districts is increasingly going to teachers who already retired.

On school funding: Agreement that a lot needs to change, but it’s early in the process
Lawmakers discussed various inequities in the system and McLachlan highlighted disparities for rural communities.

Last year, lawmakers created an interim legislative committee to study how the state funds its schools and recommend changes. Two panelists, Zenzinger and Lundeen, are on the committee.

Zenzinger said that the group is looking at many aspects of school funding, but that she wants to go back to the basics.

“To me it’s a little frustrating we just kind of made an assumption that the base amount is adequate,” she said. “How did we come to that base amount in the first place?”

Lundeen said the discussions first have to be around values.

“We are just now approaching the difficult conversations we need to have around our values,” he said. “What do we care about? Is stability more important than innovation or not?”

On the state’s READ Act: It’s still causing problems
Zenzinger said some teachers who have students flagged for reading problems don’t have help from their schools or districts to better teach students to read.

She said — and McLachlan agreed — that the system needs to be evaluated to see what’s working and what’s not.

“I agree there needs to be tweaks,” Priola said. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On funding kindergarten: One possible solution would be to decrease funding for some high school students
Priola said a bill he’s working on would increase the amount of money districts get for kindergarten students so they may expand full-day kindergarten classrooms. To make the bill more likely to survive, he said, the bill would not require new money because it would also decrease the amount of funding districts get for high school students if they are no longer attending school full-time.

Schools would still qualify for full funding for students not attending full-time if it’s because they are enrolled in college classes through concurrent enrollment programs, he said.

“That’s our hope to keep the bill revenue neutral, but to provide those structural changes to encourage better outcomes, and discourage outcomes that are, in my opinion and others’, not the best use of our resources,” Priola said.

On accountability: “You can’t legislate everything”
An Aurora high school teacher asked lawmakers how students and parents might be held accountable for test scores. She said, as a teacher, she is held accountable for the test scores of students who sleep during tests because they, or their parents, don’t take the tests seriously.

Lawmakers said that’s an issue of culture that needs to change, but can’t be legislated.

“At the end of the day it still comes down to students and parents caring,” Priola said.

Said Zenzinger: “You can’t legislate everything.”

You can watch a Facebook Live recording of the discussion here:

behind the budget

With House plan that adds money for vulnerable kids, all Indianapolis districts would gain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township, along with the other Marion County districts, would see more per-student funding if a House budget proposal moves forward.

Every district in Indianapolis is tentatively slated to get more state dollars per student under House Republicans’ 2019 budget plan released this week — exceeding some school leaders’ expectations.

For the most part, new money added to the budget to fund each student along with higher enrollment estimates are driving the increases. But even though some districts are projected to lose students, they would still get more money because of changes to Indiana’s funding formula that add money for vulnerable students and because lawmakers put more money in the budget overall.

“I just didn’t think they’d be able to reach that level when they started the session,” said Patrick Mapes, superintendent in Perry Township. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district, per-student funding is expected to go up more than 3 percent to $8,029 from $7,764. Overall, the district would see about 4 percent more in total state dollars. Compared to other districts, IPS receives more per student in part because of the number of students there from low-income families. Having more English-learners and students with disabilities can also bring in additional funding per-student.

“There are still too many moving pieces in other parts of the comprehensive budget proposal to get a clear picture of what this will ultimately mean for our students and employees,” an IPS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The estimates are far from final, as the Senate will still offer its own budget draft and lawmakers will eventually have to come to a compromise. But the House draft, which easily passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Monday, will likely see support from the full House in the coming week.

This year, district funding estimates could be even more volatile because of problems with a calculation that drives extra aid to districts with larger shares of students from low-income families. It’s unclear how this might affect schools because the calculations were not changed from last year.

“We used the numbers that we felt gave schools the most realistic proposal,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Todd Huston. He said that he was not sure when more accurate projections would be available, but House Republican staff was working with other state agencies to dig into the problem.

The budget draft proposes increasing Indiana’s contributions to schools by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020, and $5,549 per student in 2021.

House lawmakers also made some big overall changes to how schools are funded that do more to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Funding for preschool for students with disabilities increased for the first time in more than 25 years, going from $2,750 per student currently, to $2,875 per student in 2020, and $3,000 per student by 2021. In 2018, about 13,000 students qualified for the program, costing the state about $36 million. The increased grant would up those totals to about $37.3 million in 2020 and $39 million in 2021.

The budget draft would also send more money to educate students learning English as a new language for the fourth year in a row. Last year, lawmakers set aside about $32 million. Over the next two years, there’d be more than $40 million available for grants, at $325 per student, up from $300 previously.

Higher per-student grants for English learners would help the district shift more money to teachers and other employees, said Mapes, the Perry Township superintendent. Raising teacher salaries has been a hot topic during this year’s legislative session, and while money is not specifically earmarked for raises in the House budget plan, Mapes said it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s local control,” Mapes said. “We have an elected school board whose job is to make that decision for each school corporation in the state. It’s not the job of the legislature to direct down a salary schedule.”

In Beech Grove, the funding forecast is slightly less optimistic — the district is the only in the county projected to lose funding overall through 2021, by a small margin of less than 1 percent. That’s driven by a projected loss of about 116 students out of a total of 3,033.

“We all need to take three steps back and not panic because … there’s a factor here that’s real critical — the standpoint that our enrollment has gone up for nine straight years until this year,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent in the district. Lawmakers “are estimating our enrollment is going to continue to drop.”

Kaiser noted that the district does have a high rate of students transferring in from outside the district — Beech Grove had the second highest rate of students transferring into the district last year, with almost 1,200 students coming in. Like the rest of the county, Beech Grove is expected to get more dollars per student, so if transfers work out like Kaiser expects, the additional money would turn things around. He said he isn’t sure why enrollment was down last year.

“We’re hoping last year’s drop in enrollment was a blip on the horizon,” Kaiser said. “And if it’s not, then we’ll have to decide what we want to do.”

Part of Kaiser’s strategy is going to district voters in the fall to ask them to approve a tax increase — a move many school districts across the state, including IPS, are increasingly making to bring in more revenue.

One group that would see reductions under the House plan were virtual schools and virtual programs operated by school districts — they were cut from 100 percent of what students in traditional schools get to 90 percent, equivalent with students at virtual charter schools.

Lawmakers made the change in response to a rapidly growing virtual school in the Union school district, near Modoc, helped throw off school funding estimates in 2017. Even with the funding cut, budget projections show Union still would receive more state money, driven largely by growing enrollment.

House Republican staff did not confirm whether the change in all district-based virtual school funding resulted in cost-savings for the state, but a fiscal analysis from legislative staff estimated it could save the state about $3 million in 2020.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.