money matters

At state budget hearing, Mayor de Blasio says he won’t ‘crowdsource’ chancellor search

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio testified Monday in Albany.

Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to keep his search for the new schools chief under wraps, he said Monday, despite calls from some parents and advocates to let the public weigh in on the process.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate — in a personnel decision — to crowdsource it,” de Blasio said during a state budget hearing in Albany.

Current schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who announced in December that she plans to retire in the coming months, testified before lawmakers last week. On Monday, it was her boss’s turn.

During his three-hour testimony, he continued to push for more education funding than Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in the state budget plan for the coming year. But de Blasio also took some tough questions from lawmakers, who pressed him on how the city spends the money it’s given — and whether enough makes its way to the neediest schools.

“There are many high-needs school districts,” in New York City, said Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican from western New York. “So how much of the budget would you expect to go to those high-needs schools?”

Here are some highlights from Monday’s hearing.

A budget back-and-forth

De Blasio continued to blast the governor’s proposed education budget, saying it falls $200 million short of what city officials projected. City officials say that Cuomo’s budget cuts special education spending by $65 million, and forces the city to bear an extra $144 million for charter schools.

The governor’s office has said that special education funding reductions are actually smaller than the city’s projections, and state officials have highlighted a proposed 3 percent increase in school aid.

Either way, budget negotiations are just beginning: Cuomo and lawmakers must come to an agreement by April 1. Some legislators have already indicated that they will push for more school funding than Cuomo proposed — though it’s not clear how much more.

De Blasio also took aim Monday at the governor’s proposal to require state officials to approve some local school districts’ budgets, saying it could lead to “arbitrary decisions.”

“We ask that you do not tie up much-needed resources to our students through added layers of bureaucracy,” de Blasio said.

How to support struggling schools

De Blasio faced tough questions from Sen. Young about how the city funds its high-needs schools — echoing Cuomo, who said last month, “Right now we have no idea where the money is going.”

Citing a Chalkbeat article, Young questioned why less than 20 percent of the city’s $30.8 billion education budget last year was allocated through the its “Fair Student Funding” formula, which partly determines the amount of each school’s budget. The city adopted the formula in 2007 as a way to send more money to schools with the neediest students.

“Why doesn’t the city allocate more funding through that formula?” Young asked.

De Blasio responded that the city is obligated to spend some of the money on education-related expenses separate from school budgets, such as teacher pensions. But he also said his administration has invested heavily in programs — including the “Renewal” program for struggling schools and another that creates “community schools” by filling them with social services — that target high-needs schools, even if they don’t receive funding directly.

“The formula is one piece of how we address equity and improve our schools,” he said. “But there are other pieces as well. And we’ve made sure to give them substantial support.”

At what cost

Adams 14 looking for grants first, as it prepares to pay for an external manager

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

About to embark on a search for a manager to run its district, Adams 14 officials have been looking at how to pay for that external management.

Although the state ordered that the district hand over management to a third party, following years of low performance, the order doesn’t come with money. Many community members have been wondering where the funds will come from.

Sean Milner, the district’s executive director of budget, operations and construction, said the best guess district officials have right now is that external management could cost $600,000 per year.

The cost of the contract isn’t yet clear. It’s hard to even estimate the cost since Adams 14 is the first district the state Board of Education has ordered to seek outside management.

The actual cost won’t be pinned down until after a group is selected and a contract is negotiated. The district will call for proposals requesting to know the qualifications of interested outside groups, but those will not include the cost of their work. The Colorado State Board of Education must vote to approve the selected manager before the district proceeds with a contract.

It’s possible the district will get help, at least to cover a portion of the management costs.

Adams 14 officials already applied to the state for a grant of up to $200,000 per year. There are no guarantees that Adams 14 will get that money, as they are competing with other districts that need help improving.

Colorado Department of Education officials would not comment on applications under review, but said that districts like Adams 14 that are following State Board directives receive priority for what the state calls Transformation grant dollars.

Officials are also searching for other grants to cover another $200,000. If they are successful, that could leave about $200,000 for the district to cover.

District officials said they hope that by shifting money they might be able to free up enough money from the general fund, without having to make large budget cuts. Work on the budget for 2019-20 is just beginning.

And if need be, district officials said they have informally received the school board’s verbal approval to use some of the district’s $14 million reserves.

So far, officials have looked at other districts that have gone through similar contracts in Indiana and Massachusetts. Those districts are larger than Adams 14’s 7,500-student-district. In their estimates, Adams 14 officials are also considering there may be extra costs associated if a selected partner isn’t local. The possibility also exists that Adams 14 may choose a public entity such as a school district, (Mapleton has already expressed interest), and those contracts could cost less.

Community members have asked if certain district positions, especially that of the superintendent, will duplicates the job of the external manager. Board member Bill Hyde wondered at a public board meeting earlier this year if the district would be paying twice for the same work.

Just earlier this year, the Adams 14 school board raised Superintendent Javier Abrego’s annual salary to $169,125.

The school board, which retained ultimate authority to hire or fire anyone in the district, may have to consider district positions as it finalizes the 2019-20 budget. Or the external manager, once on board, could make recommendations about staffing.

The state order requires that the district’s contract with an external manager start by July, but district officials are planning for an earlier start, potentially in March or April.

If that happens, the district would amend the current school year’s $130 million budget to use curriculum funds to pay for the outside manager for the remainder of this school year.

Officials said they’re being conservative in new spending, given that whoever comes in to run the district soon might have new ideas about programs or curriculum.

“We’re not stopping anything we have in progress,” Milner said. Some teacher training for curriculum still has to happen, for instance, he said. “But if there were new items to put in place, at this time we’re kind of holding off.”

major grants

Tennessee’s turnaround district wins big chunk of $8.25 million grant for school improvement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A student at Libertas School of Memphis spells out words next to pictures as part of his independent learning time at the Montessori school in the Frayser community. The school is one of 10 in the state awarded a new school improvement grant.

Ten schools throughout Tennessee that are academically behind are divvying up $8.25 million in new federal grants for school improvement, the state Department of Education announced Monday.

Each school will receive $275,000 per year over three years to total $825,000. Four schools in the state’s turnaround Achievement School District netted the competitive grants, which are going to be used for bolstering strong leadership, talent management, effective instruction, and student support.

The money will be a welcome boost to the state-run district, which is tasked with improving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically. The grants give schools the flexibility to add staff members or new programs to areas that will help their students improve, which is especially helpful to the schools that serve students in low-income areas and have historically been under-enrolled and under-funded.

For Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, the new funding will go toward reading intervention for its middle school students, and more behavior and social work support.

“We know that one of the biggest difference makers for our kids is the ability to read and read well,” said James Dennis, interim leader of Memphis Scholars. “The grant will be a steroid shot to our efforts to meet our kids where they are. It will also go toward additional wraparound services, behavior and social work support. It will help us get to the bottom of some of the issues preventing our students from learning at high levels.”

The schools awarded are:

  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District
  • Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, Achievement School District
  • LEAD Neely’s Bend Middle School, Achievement School District
  • Libertas at Brookmeade, Achievement School District
  • Antioch Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County Schools
  • McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • McMurray Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • The Howard School, Hamilton County Schools

These grants are provided through Title I funds from the U.S. Department of Education and must be used to support schools on the state’s lists of academically struggling schools.

“It is imperative that we provide additional support to schools that serve our students who are furthest behind and believe it is important to allow districts the autonomy to leverage what works in their local schools,” outgoing Education Commission Candice McQueen said.

It’s significant that four of the 30 schools in the Achievement School District made it through the competitive statewide application, said Sharon Griffin, leader of the district and assistant commissioner for school turnaround.

It’s “a tremendous accomplishment for our district and our operators,” Griffin said. “It’s even more impressive to know that we are the one school district in West Tennessee to have schools that were approved.”

For Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, the announcement of the new funding fell on the first day of school after three weeks of heating problems. Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said it made the day even more of a celebration.

“This funding over three years is going to be huge for this school, as well as the other schools awarded for turnaround strategies,” White said.