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.

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.