Show me the money

New York’s top policymakers outline a plan to help open up the black box of school funding

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

Schools across New York will have to start breaking down how much money they spend on students next year – a change required under federal law that advocates hope will create greater transparency.

State officials at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting stressed the importance of opening up the black box of school funding to ensure that money is going to the schools and students that need it most. But they also tried to address concerns that the change would become an administrative burden on schools.

“At this point in time, I can’t say people are jumping for joy over doing this,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “But I can say they understand why it’s being done.”

Currently, the state publicly reports how much money flows from the state to each district. After this changes goes into effect, districts will have to explain how they take that money and divide it among individual schools. The state is also hoping to put the information into an accessible package that will allow policymakers and community members to easily compare resources among schools.

“How do you have the same expectations if you’re spending this amount in one place and this amount in another place?” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa during Monday’s meeting.

School districts will begin tracking their budgets in the 2018-19 school year, but will not have to report that information publicly until December of 2019, state officials said Monday.

One wrinkle to the plan, though, is that reported funds will only include federal, state and local money. Several Regents raised concerns that the reporting requirements exclude non-governmental sources of funding, particularly in New York City where parent-teacher associations can raise extraordinary sums of additional money. Policymakers worry that without displaying this information, any tool the state provides will paint a misleading picture.

“There are many schools in New York City where the parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Regent Lester Young. “Poor people can’t raise that kind of money.”

The board provided an example of how the information could be displayed. (However, state officials cautioned this is only a sample and is certainly not a final recommendation.)

The sample included two bar graphs. The first shows per-pupil funding by school, starting with the highest funding level and dipping to the lowest. The second shows how much schools would gain or lose if the hypothetical district implemented a weighted funding formula.

Elia also made it clear that she does not want this to become a “compliance issue”  for districts, while acknowledging that some locales are concerned about tackling the additional task. She said that in order to smooth the transition, state officials have already met with stakeholders and that the state is convening a technical workgroup over the spring and summer to craft reporting guidelines.

It’s unclear exactly how much this will change reporting in New York City, which already includes per-student funding by school. State officials said they cannot say whether the city will have to change the way it reports information until they have a better sense of what will be required statewide.

However, state officials also said the city will have to fit into whatever statewide framework they devise, which could include a more accessible format that allows for easy comparisons between schools.

Another concern expressed by several policymakers is that while these changes will expose funding disparities, they will not force districts to make changes to funding distribution. Elia has come out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal that would allow state officials to review and reject certain school districts’ budgets with an eye towards equity. (At a conference of school board leaders in February, she said, “I am not interested in approving your budgets.”)

But without that kind of authority, Regents pointed out that any changes will have to come from local leaders who want to alter their funding structures.

“The role that we play will only be as good as the district’s willingness to receive and use it,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown.

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janise Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”