pros and cons of con con

What does your ‘Con Con’ vote mean for education? Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

New York City’s teachers union sent out a quiz about the state’s upcoming vote on a constitutional convention asking: Will the convention likely result in “a lifetime supply of pizza” or “the loss of rights and benefits that working families depend on?”

The question is meant to be sarcastic and the answer that it will rob workers of benefits  is designed to paint an unflattering picture of the convention. The quiz is one aspect of a hard-fought union campaign against Tuesday’s ballot proposal that could open the state’s constitution to any and all amendments.

Proponents of a convention nicknamed “Con Con”  argue it presents a rare chance to make much-needed changes to the state’s constitution, which could include adding language to boost school funding. Besides education, Con Con supporters argue it could invite revisions to the very way the state is governed, including ethics reform and major changes to the judiciary, as well as address social issues like abortion protections.

However, opponents argue the convention could be hijacked by conservatives who are hostile to labor protections. Since convention delegates would be selected from Republican-leaning State Senate districts, the teacher union reasons that a convention could erode teachers’ rights and send money to private schools.

Here’s what you need to know about how Con Con could affect New York state education:

Why is New York City’s teachers union so against this?

Teachers union representatives are worried that a constitutional convention could put pensions and workers’ rights at risk. New York state’s constitution enshrines the rights of workers to collectively bargain and organize, said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. It also protects pensions, which union officials fear could be on the chopping block during a convention, he said.

“I think the state has a lot to lose tomorrow,” Mulgrew said. “It would be a huge mistake for New York State to have this process.”  

Are there other education issues at stake?

Some advocates fear a constitutional convention would allow money to flow to private schools. The state constitution contains an amendment prohibiting the use of public money to fund religions schools, wrote Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, in an op-ed opposing the convention. The last time New York held a convention in 1967, a proposal that would have allowed public funds to cover religious schools gathered steam, but eventually proved too controversial.

Emboldened by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who champions religious schools, Lieberman fears supporters of religious education could again try to undo this amendment, which she said would strip funds from public education.

Are there potential education benefits?

Instead of eroding school funding, a constitutional convention could ensure it flows directly into school budgets, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

More than 10 years after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement, which ruled the state had to allocate more money to schools in order to provide students with a “sound basic education,” advocates say schools are still owed billions of dollars. (The governor disputes that.) Bloomfield said that without a radical change like a constitutional convention, “there is no hope” for school funding reform.

“The current political apparatus is fixed for incumbents and crooks,” he said.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.