School Finance

With its new lawyer, Shelby County Schools forges ahead with state funding lawsuit

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rodney Moore and school board member Billy Orgel at an August meeting.

An attorney with the law firm handling Shelby County Schools’ funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee is joining the district as its general counsel and chief legal officer.

Rodney Moore

In his new role, Rodney Moore will oversee litigation stemming from the district’s lawsuit, filed last August, charging that the state is not equitably and adequately funding public education for all students through its school funding formula called the Basic Education Plan, or BEP.

Moore’s hiring signals the commitment of the state’s largest public school district to follow through with the litigation, even as Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed to increase K-12 education funding by $261 million statewide in 2016-17.

“There’s a crisis in confidence that the state is going to do the right thing and fund the district,” Moore told Chalkbeat on Tuesday night after being introduced to Shelby County’s school board.

He said other school district leaders concur, though most have not taken their concerns to court. “Everyone’s being hammered with inadequate funding,” he said.

Moore joins the district from Atlanta where he was a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, the same firm hired last year by Shelby County Schools to explore litigation. The firm has won a similar school funding lawsuit in Kansas. Moore has resigned as a partner, and Shelby County Schools is retaining his former law firm in the case. His yearly salary will be $188,000.

Moore is a former president of the National Bar Association and has served on the National School Board Association’s Council of School Lawyers. In addition to being a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, he has served as general counsel of the East Side Union High School District in Silicon Valley, Calif., and Atlanta Public Schools.

He replaces Valerie Speakman, who resigned last month after eight years with Shelby County Schools.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools say the district would receive $100 million more in state funding each year if state funding was equitable. In the coming months, the school system’s administrators must reconcile a $72 million gap in its budget for next school year.

A court date is not set for Shelby County’s lawsuit, but the first motions are scheduled for Feb. 19 in a separate but related lawsuit led by Hamilton County’s school board.

The Hamilton County suit was filed last year and includes six smaller districts in southeast Tennessee as co-plaintiffs. Their suit claims that the state’s funding formula underestimates teachers’ salaries by about $532 million and classroom costs by about $134 million.

Though both cases could take years and amass significant legal fees, school officials say the long-term benefits of correcting the state’s funding formula will outweigh the cost.

The governor has maintained that the state is adequately funding its schools and demonstrating its commitment to public education in this year’s increased budget and next year’s proposed increased budget.

Shelby County school board members welcomed the expertise that Moore brings to the district.

“He’s coming from one of the law firms with the best results in suing states in the country,” said school board member Mike Kernell, also a former state lawmaker from Memphis.

 

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding method for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators including district and charters school teachers to determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more. Schools also get federal funding on top of that. 

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations. It also did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money, instead outlining that conversation as a next step — and highlighting a potential pitfall that could arise.

“While outside of the scope of this current study, the study team feels it is important to highlight during the implementation of a new system that student and taxpayer equity will also need to be considered,” the study’s executive summary reads. “Ensuring that each district and charter has the ability to raise funds needed to meet all resource needs is critical to ensuring both an adequate and equitable school funding system.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here:

spending squeeze

Facing a state budget crunch, Gov. Cuomo proposes modest 3 percent education boost

Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

Facing budget pressure at home and from Washington, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed increasing school aid by 3 percent this year —  far less than what advocates and the state’s education policymakers had sought.

Cuomo put forward a $769 million increase in school aid during his executive budget address on Tuesday, less than half of the $1.6 billion sought by the state’s Board of Regents. In response, the state’s top education officials said they were “concerned,” and suggested that they would press lawmakers to negotiate for more education spending.

The governor’s modest increase in school funding comes amid a projected $4.4 billion state budget deficit, a federal tax overhaul expected to squeeze New York’s tax revenue, and the threat of further federal cuts.

Still, Cuomo, a Democrat who plans to run for reelection this fall and is considering a 2020 presidential bid, defended his spending plan as a boost for schools at a time of fiscal uncertainty.

“We have increased education more than any area in state government,” he said during his speech in Albany. “Period.”

He also floated a plan to have the state approve local districts’ budgets to ensure they are spending enough on high-poverty schools. And he set aside more money for prekindergarten, after-school programs, and “community schools” that provide social services to students and their families.

Now that Cuomo’s proposal is out he must negotiate a final budget for the 2019 fiscal year with lawmakers by April 1. While the Democratic-controlled assembly is likely to push for more school spending, the senate’s Republican leaders are calling for fiscal restraint and tax cuts.

What was the response?

Advocates and policymakers were alarmed by Cuomo’s proposed $769 million education bump — a 3 percent spending increase compared to last year’s 4.4 percent boost.

Last month, a coalition of statewide education organizations estimated that the state would need to increase spending by $1.5 billion just to maintain current education services. The group, which includes state teachers union and groups representing school boards and superintendents, called for a $2 billion increase.

In a statement Tuesday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia noted that Cuomo’s proposal was less than half the amount they sought. They promised to work with lawmakers to ensure the final budget amount “will meet the needs of every student throughout our State.”

Anticipating such criticism, Cuomo noted in his speech that he has expanded education spending by nearly 35 percent since taking office. His proposal would bring total school aid to $26.4 billion — the largest portion of the state budget.

Still, that didn’t prevent pushback. A state assemblyman heckled Cuomo as the unveiled his education spending plan, suggesting it was not enough money.

“It’s never enough,” Cuomo shot back.

Will poorer schools get more funding?

Cuomo said he wants to fight “trickle-down education funding” and ensure that poor schools receive their fair share of cash.

To that end, Cuomo wants the state education department and his budget office to review local school district budget plans. The plan is aimed at larger school districts, including New York City, which Cuomo singled out in his speech.

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

It’s unclear how the proposal would impact New York City, which already uses a funding formula designed to send more money to schools with needier students. But some education advocates were intrigued by Cuomo’s idea, which they said could be a way to expose and fight inequities in school funding across the state.

“Right now, school-level expenditure with consistent definitions is really a mystery,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust – New York. “It means that a lot of inequity can be swept under the rug.”

Cuomo officials also said that 73.1 percent of funding will be directed to high-needs districts in this year’s budget, which the state said was the highest share ever. Last year, they received 72 percent.

But advocates are more concerned with the state’s “foundation aid” formula, which funnels a greater share of funds to high-needs districts. The formula was created in response to a school funding lawsuit settled more than a decade ago; advocates say schools are still owed billions from the settlement.

Cuomo proposed boosting foundation aid this year by $338 million, a far cry from the $1.25 billion requested by the Board of Regents. Without more foundation aid, some advocates say Cuomo’s promise of greater funding equity rings hollow.

“Equity is you’re actually helping to lift up poor districts so that they can provide an equitable education,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education. “Not just that they’re receiving a larger share of a too-small pot.”

What does all of this mean for New York City schools?

New York City is not immune from Albany’s budget crunch.

The total increase proposed for the city — $247 million — falls about $150 million short of the mayor’s projections in November, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

It may also be difficult for the city to wrangle funding for big-ticket items. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to expand his prekindergarten program to 3-year-old students, but he estimates that he will need $700 million from state and federal sources by 2021. (The governor proposed $15 million to expand pre-K seats across the state.)

How about charter schools?

Cuomo would boost spending for charter schools by 3 percent the same rate as for district schools. He also wants to provide more support for schools that rent private space, which is a major financial burden for some schools.

“Once again, Gov. Cuomo demonstrated his unwavering commitment to ensuring every student in our state has access to a great public education,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.