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.”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.