Early Childhood

IPS ended 2014 with a $4.1 million surplus despite less state aid

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.

Indianapolis Public Schools weathered a deep $10 million dip in state aid last year compared to 2013 but still finished 2014 with a small $4.1 million surplus it put toward savings.

The district had planned for some of that drop in aid, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said it still took $5 million in new budget cuts last year to produce a savings. IPS spent $232.5 million last year from its general fund, which pays for day-to-day operating costs like salaries, benefits, learning materials and utilities.

“We’re doing better due diligence in terms of projecting and monitoring our revenue and expenditures,” Ferebee said. “Since this administration came on board last school year, there have been efforts to restructure. We’ve received less funding but we’re also being better stewards of the funding that we receive.”

Part of the reason IPS saw so much less state aid come in last year was because of some extra dollars the district received in 2013, notably a $6 million payback from the state after a court ruled it overcharged the district for the cost of operating four failing schools it took over and turned over to outside operators. But at the same time, the state has been reducing the basic per student state aid amount for high poverty districts for several years, which has meant less money for IPS.

So Ferebee looked internally for cost savings.

He trimmed $1.5 million from the administrative payroll of the central office. Critics have long complained that IPS was overly bureaucratic. Ferebee agreed, saying he saved money but cutting jobs and spreading those duties to other administrators.

After Ferebee presented his year-end financial report to the Indianapolis Public School Board on Tuesday, board members said they want to push even harder to save money, especially because school funding has become a key issue for lawmakers this year and Ferebee has said he is concerned that IPS could see even deeper cuts in state aid going forward.

Since taking over as superintendent in late 2013, Ferebee has pushed IPS to be more open about its financial situation, beginning with his shocking revelation last March that a $30 million budget deficit claimed by prior administrations did not exist. Ferebee said IPS in the past had systematically overestimated its budget. He has since invited independent audits that largely confirmed his findings, fired the district’s prior financial chief and began giving the board more frequent and specific updates on the district’s financial state.

Board member Kelly Bentley, a longtime critic of the district’s financial reporting in a prior stint on the board, said lawmakers setting the state’s next budget should understand that even small reductions in per-student funding make a big difference for districts like IPS. For each student, IPS received $7,058 in tuition support last month, according to IPS. Compare that with $7,209 back in January 2013.

Losing that $150 per student costs IPS about $4.6 million — or nearly equivalent to the district’s entire 2015 budget for school security.

“It’s important to let them know what we’re spending our money on,” Bentley said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for legislators to grasp that $150 (less) per pupil is a significant amount of money.”

IPS Treasurer Paul Carpenter-Wilson said the district is losing money partly because of a change in the way Indiana counts students. Enrollment is counted twice a year now, in September and February, and adjustments are made to raise or lower funding if enrollment grows or falls. In the past, enrollment was only counted once in September. The district’s estimates for how much aid it will receive based on September’s count did not anticipate lost enrollment that was evident in the February count.

Fewer students in February meant a cut in state aid in the following months.

“As the state continues with two (count days) and financial adjustments made for each, we will continue to refine our projections using these new data methods in order to be as accurate as possible,” Carpenter-Wilson said.

More cost savings for IPS are expected this year. IPS administrators said their plans in 2015 include:

    • Selling off vacant former school buildings. IPS plans to lease or sell three former school buildings — School 21, School 78 and School 92 — that all have been vacant for at least six years.  Scott Martin, IPS’s operations director, said the district is losing money by maintaining and securing buildings that aren’t being used. Private groups have expressed interest in buying the former schools and turning them into everything from senior citizen housing to preschool centers, Ferebee said, but charter school groups have so far not shown interest as the buildings need significant repairs.
    • Replacing older buses with new, efficient models. About 40 percent of the district’s fleet of 305 buses are at least 12 years old. IPS transports about a third of its students on those buses and pays Durham School Services nearly $25 million annually to bus the rest. IPS will seek to sell the older buses and buy new ones that use less fuel and have lower maintenance costs.
    • Refinancing bonds. IPS estimates it could save up to $1 million each year — and more than $13 million over the life of the bonds — by refinancing two bonds at lower interest rates.

Preschool expansion

Could a new universal preschool program in a Colorado resort community help propel a statewide effort?

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Back in 2006, Denver voters passed a sales tax to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool. It was a first for Denver and the state, eventually growing into a nationally recognized program that has served nearly 51,000 students.

Summit County, a resort community 80 miles to the west, will soon offer the same kind of preschool assistance to 4-year-olds, using proceeds from a new property tax approved by voters in November. Local early childhood leaders say the new effort, called Summit PreK, will help prepare kids for kindergarten and make it easier for their parents to stay in the workforce.

“We really want to provide some financial relief to our low- and middle-income families,” said Lucinda Burns, executive director of Early Childhood Options, the early childhood council in Summit County.

On its face, Summit PreK is a small local victory poised to help a few hundred children and families a year in one pricey ski resort community. But some observers see it as the latest success in a broader movement that could eventually lead to statewide preschool-for-all.

“In Colorado, it feels like it’s going to be a community-by-community strategy until we reach a tipping point,” said Jennifer Stedron, executive director of the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, which worked with Summit County leaders on Summit PreK’s design and cost modeling.

She said gov.-elect Jared Polis, who championed free universal preschool throughout his campaign, may sense that the tide is slowly turning in favor of a statewide effort.

Still, he’ll face some big obstacles in making his vision a reality. Colorado voters have repeatedly expressed skepticism about statewide tax hikes for education, most recently rejecting Amendment 73, which would have earmarked money for preschool among other things.

A recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University dinged Colorado for lacking the political will to make progress on publicly funded preschool, citing the state’s limited education budget and the constraints of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment commonly known as TABOR.

Currently, the state funds half-day preschool for children from low-income families or with other risk factors, but there’s not enough funding to serve all eligible children. Most middle-class families, a group hit hard by child care costs and without access to most types of government assistance, don’t qualify.

For now, local initiatives hold the most promise in helping Colorado families across the economic spectrum pay for preschool. Besides Summit PreK and the Denver Preschool Program, Jeffco school district voters recently passed two tax measures that will help the district expand preschool programming, and in 2017, voters in the southwestern Colorado county of San Miguel passed a tax measure to improve local child care. More than a dozen other Colorado cities, counties, and school districts also earmark taxpayer money for early childhood efforts.

Growing interest in local early childhood tax measures could usher in a new state law next year. Cody Belzley, who leads the Denver-based Common Good Consulting, said that discussions among leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley have spurred plans to introduce a bill to create early childhood special districts.

Such districts would allow multiple municipalities or counties to join together to seek ballot initiatives for early childhood efforts. The bill died last spring after being introduced late in legislative session, but Belzley is optimistic the measure will win support next time.

In Summit County, the new preschool effort will draw heavily on the Denver Preschool Program model, both awarding tuition assistance on a sliding scale based on family income and giving extra money when families choose programs with higher ratings.

Burns, of the early childhood council, said tuition credits through Summit PreK will range from around $300 to $1,100 per month per child. The money will go directly to participating preschools.

Summit PreK will limit eligible preschool programs to those that have earned a rating of Level 2,3,4 or 5 on the state’s rating system, called Colorado Shines. Level 1 programs won’t be eligible to participate, though they will get help to improve their ratings.

Currently, 22 of 27 of Summit County’s licensed preschool programs have a rating of Level 2 or higher.

Unlike in Denver, where preschool funding came out of a narrow single-issue ballot measure — after two broader versions failed — funding for Summit PreK was part of a larger property tax measure that also included money for mental health, wildfire preparedness, recycling, and building improvements. The package passed easily.

Burns said both the county and its county seat, Breckenridge, have a track record of supporting early childhood efforts with public money.

She noted the average rent for a family of four in the county is $2,300 a month, the average cost of preschool is $1,300 a month and the average cost of health insurance is $500 a month.

“We call that the trifecta,” she said.

Tamara Drangstveit, who heads a family resource center in Silverthorne and co-chaired the campaign for Summit County’s ballot initiative, said, “Most of our voting block really understands the struggle of our working families.”

She’s personally familiar with the issue as the mother of an 8-year-old and of 3-year-old twins. She said she’ll be one of the parents applying for preschool tuition assistance through Summit PreK, which will roll out on a small scale this spring and more broadly next fall.

“It’s also not lost on me that, as a mom of twins, I’m spending more on their child care than [I will] on their college education,” Drangstveit said.

early childhood

New early learning initiative brings Sesame Street lessons into Memphis classrooms

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Five-year-old Tailor Jackson can barely stay in his mother's lap when Elmo enters the room. The furry, red-haired monster was on hand Tuesday as early education leaders in Memphis announced a new partnership with Sesame Street in Communities.

Dozens of grown-ups crowded into a meeting room Tuesday at an early childhood center in Memphis to celebrate a new partner in educating the city’s youngest learners: Elmo and Sesame Street.

Officials with Porter-Leath, which provides early education to hundreds of children in the city, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences, announced the new collaborative with Sesame Street in Communities.

“Our vision here is to be the leader in early childhood, and what could be better than to have the national leader in early childhood education?” Sean Lee, president of Porter Leath, said referring to Sesame Street.

Increasing access to early childhood education has been a priority for Shelby County Schools and Shelby County elected officials. A growing body of research shows high-quality early childhood programs nurture brain development, enhance school performance and boost the likelihood of graduating from college and earning higher incomes.

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Elmo was in Memphis Tuesday for the launch of a new partnership between Sesame Street in Communities and Porter-Leath, the city’s largest provider of early education services, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences or childhood traumas.

Through the partnership, Lee said that lessons and content from Sesame Street will be incorporated into its pre-kindergarten classes, and parents will receive take-home materials to reinforce the classroom learning. Additionally, he said, the collaboration will allow them to expand teacher training beyond traditional preK settings, including day care centers and family day homes.

Jeanette Betancourt, a senior vice-president at Sesame Workshop, said the national initiative embeds in existing programs to add support and resources from its research-based materials on early education, trauma experiences and school readiness.

In pursuing its mission to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder, Betancourt said that Sesame Workshop realized they couldn’t just simply “place things on the screen, but we also had to be in communities.”

Sesame Street in Communities operates in seven other cities outside Memphis. The goal is to expand into 35 communities throughout the U.S. in the next five years, said Betancourt.

“I truly believe that having that [Sesame Street] title, having those connections will draw more parents and grandparents and childcare givers to the work that we’re doing,” said Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director for ACE Awareness.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said that the Sesame Street initiative dovetails into one of the county’s priorities to expand quality, needs-based pre-K programs throughout the county.

“We are working really hard to implement a plan to make sure that every child regardless of their income has access to a pre-K program,” he said.