Constitutional Matters

Hickenlooper: We need voters’ help to fully fund schools

DENVER, CO - January 11: Governor John Hickenlooper delivering the Colorado State of the State address at the Colorado State Capitol. January 11, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

In his final State of the State address, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for more money for education but said it would take voters’ help to do that.

In an interview after the speech, Hickenlooper said he wasn’t calling for a ballot measure with a new tax for schools so much as he was pointing out Colorado violates its own constitution every year.

Even with increased funding for schools in recent budgets and the governor’s 2018-19 budget proposal, “we remain roughly three quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago,” he said in his speech. “We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help.”

The Democratic governor was referring to Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that requires education spending to increase by population and inflation (it was inflation plus 1 percent from 2001 through 2011). However, the legislature has not funded education at that level since the Great Recession. The shortfall is known as the “negative factor” or more recently the “budget stabilization factor.”

Hickenlooper said in the interview afterward he and his staff “busted our necks” to get the shortfall down below $1 billion, but it’s still more than $700 million.

“That’s a big number,” he said. “We’re $770 million a year lower than what the voters told us to we should do. Were they just ignorant?”

Colorado voters have turned down several requests to raise taxes to put more money into K-12 education.

“I wasn’t specifically saying we have to go to the voters per se, but I thought it was worth noticing,” Hickenlooper said.

In this context, constitutional compliance could also look like voter authorization to spend less on schools.

“Maybe the solution is to go to the voters and ask them to reduce Amendment 23 to something more manageable,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe it’s to have a transportation plan that also accommodates increased spending in education. I’m not sure what that looks like.”

“Maybe at some point – I don’t think it will be this year – we put an initiative on the ballot that says we want to take excess revenues every year and commit them to Amendment 23.”

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights imposes a cap on how much revenue the state can collect each year, but with voter permission, the state could keep additional money and put it toward education.

That’s what’s proposed in a bill from state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, that Republicans sent straight to a kill committee Wednesday.

Hickenlooper included a plan for funding K-12 education among his top priorities for the next year, and he linked it to plans to fund transportation and the state’s water plan. Those priorities, which he called a “common sense agenda,” are:

  • Solving the unfunded liability in the state pension system, which many public school employees participate in;
  • Passing legislation to cap orphan oil and gas wells;
  • Halting the opioid epidemic;
  • Enacting funding plans for K-12 education, infrastructure and the state water plan;
  • Passing legislation and authorizing money for a full buildout of rural broadband;
  • Addressing the negative impact of the Gallagher Amendment on rural communities.

Here’s what Hickenlooper had to say about K-12 education funding in his speech:

Today, in almost every part of Colorado, zip code still determines your educational outcome, and that determines your economic outcome. This needs to change.

We re-convened the Education Leadership Council, with your help, to build a long-term vision and path forward. It’s nonpartisan and comprehensive, with a focus on the building blocks of a child’s success from early childhood to workforce and beyond.

We’re pumping an additional $100 million above enrollment and inflation into our schools this year, and adding $10 million to address teacher shortages in rural areas.

We also proposed repeating this year’s $30 million to rural schools next year.

Even with these increases, we remain roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help. And if we are being really blunt, it hurts rural Colorado more than the Front Range.

Hickenlooper also called for additional focus on being prepared for work and highlighted his apprenticeship programs.

We need to transition from a degree-based education system to one that also includes skill-based training.

Experts tell us almost 60 percent of our kids in America today will not get a 4-year degree, and that number is true in Colorado as well.

Careers and professions by the dozens will be swept away in the coming decades by automation and artificial intelligence.

But new industries will emerge at an equally frantic rate. We will need not just engineers but huge numbers of technicians and analysts with new sets of skills. We need to get more kids learning skills that matter. We need to do it yesterday.

That’s why we’re working with the state board of education to expose more students to coding in middle and high school years. Why not give those schools with a foreign language requirement the choice to offer coding as an alternative language?

But let’s not fall into the trap of instituting a bunch of coding classes and thinking we’ve solved the problem. We need flexible solutions that can adapt to what employers need tomorrow, not just what they need today.

This means training and apprenticeships.

Working closely with business and education leaders, in a public-private partnership, Colorado is igniting an apprenticeship renaissance with Careerwise, and it’s a model being copied around the country.

You can read his full speech here.

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.