Show me the money

How should New York spend billions in education funds? Top policymakers start to give their answer.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

They’re making their list and checking it twice.

On Monday, New York’s top education policymakers began the annual rite of requesting funding for education projects they want lawmakers to bake into the state budget, which included $25.8 billion for education last year. The requests are still preliminary; next month, they’ll submit a final version.

A main focus of the state Board of Regents is funding the major new school-improvement plan that each state was required to create under federal law. They’re also seeking money to help schools crack down on bullying, to make free online courses available to more districts, and to create new exams.

The state education department has not yet requested a specific total amount of school funding, but draft documents say a top priority is to increase funding for high-needs schools. Last year, the Regents, which oversee the education department, asked for a $2.1 billion boost in school aid. In the end, the legislature approved a $1.1 billion increase.

Board members on Monday also addressed the looming issue of potential federal budget cuts and an impending $4.4 billion state deficit, according to projections by the governor’s office. State officials suggested Monday that those shortfalls could force them to pare down their funding requests.

“Let’s just really figure out how to do this in a way that makes us look realistic, mindful, thoughtful, and advances the things that we care about,” Chancellor Betty Rosa said.

Here are four things to know about the board’s budget requests:

1.) They focus on four key policy areas.

A state document outlines four main funding priorities: early-learning programs, supports for English learners, expanding career and technical education, and carrying out the state plan created under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

New York’s ESSA plan provides a roadmap for how it evaluate and intervene in struggling schools.

2.) They call increased funding for high-poverty districts a “core priority.”

The Regents want districts with many poor students to get more funding — though they didn’t say how much.

In a draft document, department officials threw their weight behind the “foundation aid” formula, which is designed to give more funding to high-poverty districts.

The formula was created in response to a lawsuit that claimed the state had violated students’ rights by providing districts with too little funding to offer them a solid education. Last year, the state education department estimated that total school aid was $4.3 billion short of what is required by the formula — though Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the formula is a goal, not a requirement.

In its latest budget request, the department says a “core priority” is to push for money promised by the formula to be delivered on an “aggressive timeline.” However, the board on Monday did not float specific amounts it will seek in “foundation aid” or total state funding this year.

3.) They want to award new grants to help cut down on bullying and expand online classes.

The Regents hope to launch an $8 million grant program that would help schools track their school culture and safety, which they hope will help prevent bullying. Another $3 million request would expand online coursework options, with a goal of providing more advanced courses for needy school districts that may not be able to afford traditional courses. Both initiatives are part of the state’s ESSA plan.

The board included other new asks as well, including $100,000 to stream its meetings online.

4.) They want to create new types of tests.

The board wants to develop new types of tests, including foreign-language Regents exams and project-based assessments, which would mark a departure from paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests.

However, the requests will likely be smaller than last year.

They asked for $5 million last year for foreign-language Regents exams in Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese, but said they could shrink the number of languages this year. Similarly, the state documents says more time and research is needed to determine how much it will cost to create project-based assessments.

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.