Big money

Indiana schools credit rating at risk: Move could cost districts millions

A national credit rating agency is threatening to downgrade Indiana school debt, in a move that could costs districts millions of dollars.

In a statement issued yesterday, the national credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s said that it has placed a 90-day watch on the rating for loans to all Indiana school districts. If the state does not resolve S&P’s concerns, the ratings for school corporations across Indiana could be lowered, forcing districts to pay higher interest rates on debt.

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said the watch from the S&P could cost the district more than $1 million in additional interest on bonds it plans to issue in the coming months.

“Anytime you are talking about credit, it’s always very concerning,” Butts said. “Being able to take advantage of lower interest rates … is the only thing really that allows us right now, with our current (tax) cap, to maintain the facilities that our community has invested in.”

The warning was sparked by a new interpretation from S&P of a state statute designed to ensure creditors receive payments on loans to districts. The law allows the state to divert aid meant for schools to pay debt if the districts do not make their debt payments. By ensuring that creditors are paid, the law improves credit ratings for districts across the state.

It is unclear whether the state has recently changed how it handles intercepting state aid. S&P said in a statement that the watch was issued because analysts have new concerns about the process.

“As part of a routine portfolio review, we learned that the Office of the Treasurer of State would administer the intercept of state aid under IC 20-48-1-11 differently than we had understood,” S&P said in the statement. “There is a possibility that Indiana could revise current procedures resulting in an intercept of state aid that provides for timely payment of debt service in full. … In the event such revisions are made in a timely manner, the rating could be affirmed.”

The Indiana Office of Management and Budget Director Micah Vincent said in a statement that the state is working to ensure the watch is removed.

“We are looking at possible solutions to address S&P’s newfound concerns,” Vincent said. “It is our goal to ensure that S&P removes the Indiana State Aid Intercept rating from CreditWatch and affirms the intercept program’s excellent credit rating, which supports Indiana’s schools and taxpayers.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”

breaking

Double whammy: Indiana schools could see two A-F grades in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on an assignment at Decatur Central High School. (File Photo)

Indiana schools could get two A-F grades in 2018 — one official grade based on state requirements, and a separate calculation based on the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The proposal comes as changes in graduation rate calculations and dual credit teacher training have complicated the state’s plan to comply with the new law, which went into effect this school year.

There was an opportunity to make adjustments when the plan was introduced in June, but Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana education officials endorsed it with few major changes. It’s unclear why separate state and federal grades weren’t considered earlier.

The proposal highlights the pressure Indiana and other states face to quickly adjust to ESSA and changing expectations from Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education. A number of regulations were either thrown out when she came into office or could not be finished in time by the Obama Administration. Indiana, too, saw a dramatic election that brought in a new schools chief, governor and other key education policymakers.

The idea to create dual standards was revealed tonight when Ken Folks, chief of governmental affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, spoke with educators and community members at Noblesville East Middle School.

Adam Baker, state department of education spokesman, said officials need more time to figure out how to meet the federal rules for graduation rate and new regional rules regarding dual credit teaching. Both factor heavily into high school A-F grades, and the changes could result in lower grades for many schools.

“We are trying to support schools and trying to do what’s best to make this transition a lot smoother,” Baker said.

Read: Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

Here’s how it might look:

About a year from now, after students take the spring 2018 ISTEP test, schools will get a letter grade from the state that won’t encompass any of the changes proposed in Indiana’s ESSA plan.

The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention — public schools, for example, can only have four consecutive years of F grades before takeover or other serious improvement plans are on the table.

But nothing about the ESSA rules will change or pause. Unlike in 2016, federal officials have no plans to give states a reprieve from accountability sanctions. Every school will still receive a percentage calculation based on federal guidelines using the same 100-point scale that state letter grades are based on, where 90 percent is an A, 80 is percent a B, and so on.

The federal calculation would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding. For example, any high school where the four-year federal graduation rate is lower than 67 percent would be considered under “comprehensive support” from the state.

Conversations with the governor’s office and the state board around the specifics of the state/federal split are still happening, Baker said, and the dual system would only be for 2018.

Grades based on 2017 ISTEP tests that are set to come out next month, which schools have already seen, are not part of this change.

This idea was floated a month ago at a state board of education work session that was held to build consensus around the state’s ESSA plan. Board members asked state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and her staff why there couldn’t just be two grades next year.

At the time, Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, McCormick’s chief of staff, told board members that in the past, Indiana did operate two accountability systems, one for state and one for federal.

“The reason Indiana moved from two accountability systems to one was because it was confusing and caused chaos,” she said. “We would have schools that could look very different in the two systems.”

But as the ESSA plan’s due date rapidly approached and diploma and dual credit situations remained in limbo, Baker said the department changed its mind. Keeping the state’s grading system consistent, even if it meant a separate federal piece, ended up making more sense than a series of state grades with big fluctuations.

“The extra time wasn’t like, ‘OK, let’s give ourselves a fifth quarter,” Baker said. “It was more or less like, this is coming down the pipeline — what can we do (for schools)? Our hope is that things will change.”

See all of Chalkbeat Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.