funding fun

After heated debate, New York charter schools receive boost; school aid increases by $1.1 billion

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

More than a week after the state’s budget deadline, lawmakers resolved their differences on education with a per-pupil increase in charter school funding and a $1.1 billion increase in school aid.

The funding tug-of-war between charters and traditional public schools boiled over into a contentious fight this year, which contributed to the most delayed budget on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s watch.

Charter schools were due a big funding boost if lawmakers did not act, a concern for the Democrat-controlled Assembly and teachers unions. Meanwhile, Cuomo warned that the state might not be able to handle a large increase in education spending with possible federal cuts on the horizon.

In the end, despite the long haul, the set of compromises seems to have left each party at least fairly satisfied. Charter schools will get extra funding and will have future aid linked to spending on traditional public schools. State aid for education, more broadly, will increase by more than $1 billion. The state’s teachers union called the budget “all in all, progress for our students.”

Here’s more on each of the big education items announced in this year’s budget:

Charter schools get funding boost, increases will be linked to those for public schools

The deal will increase funding for charter schools by $500 per pupil, and starting in the 2018-19 school year, “tuition” funding paid by the state will increase at the same rate as public school spending.

That compromise was struck, in part, in response to a charter school tuition formula that has been frozen since 2010-11 (though some years charter schools have received supplemental aid). The formula was set to unfreeze this year and would have resulted in a $1,500 increase in per-pupil spending, which Cuomo called a “windfall” for charter schools. (Charter school advocates say it is important to achieve equitable funding between traditional public schools and charters.)

One major problem with that plan, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was that the extra funding was set to come out of the city’s budget. (New York City’s Office of Management and Budget estimated it would cost the city about $200 million.)

The final result strikes a middle ground. The state will cover the extra $500 per pupil in the upcoming school year, but starting the next year, when charter school tuition increases mirror district school increases — and that money will come out of the city’s coffers.

There is another benefit for charter schools in the state’s budget: more funds for schools moving into private space. Under a 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent. Now, that number has jumped to 30 percent.

Finally, Cuomo proposed lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in New York City in January and instead having one big cap for the entire state. That proposal was rejected, leaving only 30 additional charter school slots for the city — and perhaps a battle for another year.

Most charter advocates are pleased with the outcome. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman called it a “major victory.”

“This budget agreement was hard fought and we deeply appreciate the tenacious commitment of Governor Cuomo, Majority Leader Flanagan and Coalition Leader Klein to treat public charter school students fairly,” said Merriman said in a statement.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz disagreed with that assessment, saying the agreement “shortchanged” students in charter schools.

Total school aid spending a bit below proposals

School aid is set to increase by $1.1 billion, bringing total education spending to $25.8 billion.

That is slightly below expectations. It is close to what the governor originally proposed — a $1 billion increase — but it is less than what the Assembly or Senate proposed, $1.8 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively. It is also far below what state’s education policymaking body proposed at $2.1 billion.

Late in March, Cuomo suggested the threat of federal cuts could limit education spending, since he was not sure the budget could handle “dramatic increases” with federal uncertainty.

Foundation aid is here to stay

A major portion of education spending is allocated through a “foundation aid” formula, which is designed to help to needy students. The formula was created in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found some New York children did not have access to a sound basic education.

This year’s increase in foundation aid is $700 million, though advocates argue the total increase should be much higher, given the amount they say is owed under the lawsuit: $4.3 billion in all. The state’s Board of Regents outlined an “aggressive” plan to have the state provide that full amount over three years.

But advocates are relieved the “foundation aid” formula itself will remain intact. Cuomo’s original proposal included a controversial change to the formula that several advocates called a “repeal.” That’s off the table this year and an additional increase is expected next year, according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director Robert Lowry. But it remains to be seen whether the total amount of funding will be fully phased in over the years to come, especially since Cuomo’s office disagrees that the money is owed to schools.

“In a major victory, Governor Cuomo’s plan to repeal the foundation aid formula was defeated,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for increased school funding. “The foundation aid increase is modest, but it is a significant improvement on the truly meager foundation aid proposal offered by the governor.”

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.