Who Is In Charge

Education spending boost a slam dunk in Tennessee House, but impact on individual districts unclear

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

The House unanimously passed a bill Monday to increase its investment in K-12 public education by an unprecedented $220 million, even as some lawmakers worried that the increase won’t reach enough schools or teachers’ paychecks.

The bill, part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, would boost spending for school technology, teacher salaries, and programs for English language learners during the next school year. It also codifies the funding formula used by the state for the last nine years.

The proposal is expected to pass the Senate on Wednesday.

While the magnitude of the spending increase is apparent, the impact on individual districts is unclear. The bill stipulates that the state cannot give districts less money for education than it did in the 2015-16 school year — unless school enrollment has declined, as it has in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, in Memphis.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis asked how and if the spending increase would buoy Shelby County Schools, which anticipates at least $50 million in budget cuts next year and has filed a lawsuit against the state for more funding. Rep. Mark White, also of Memphis, answered that he wasn’t sure of the exact dollar amount that would go to Shelby County, but that the proposed state budget could only help.

“Shelby County Schools will do much better under this plan than if we did nothing,” White said.
It’s also unclear how much, or if, the spending boost will raise teacher salaries in urban districts.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said he celebrates much of the bill, but dislikes the provision that keeps the state’s contributions to teacher salaries at 70 percent, rather than the 75 percent outlined under BEP 2.0, the Basic Education Program funding plan adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 but never fully funded due to the economic recession.

Clemmons said the governor’s spending plan doesn’t accommodate districts such as Metro Nashville Public Schools or Williamson County Schools, which already rely solely on local money to fund hundreds of teaching positions. He noted that rural and urban districts alike are pursuing legal action against the state for more money. Metro Nashville, the state’s second-largest district, is also weighing a lawsuit, depending on the outcome of the new spending plan.

“This is going to be the first governor who passes a bill that creates lawsuits from small schools and large school districts,”  Clemmons said, declaring the bill “BEP No.”

Although Haslam is proposing increased spending for teacher salaries by $105 million, not all teachers would see that boost in their paycheck. The bill stipulates that funds appropriated for instructional salaries and wages must be spent for that purpose if a district’s average salary is below the statewide salary. But districts where the salary exceeds the statewide average salary, such as Shelby County Schools, don’t have to spend the money on teacher salaries and instead can funnel it to other areas of need.

Districts that are losing student enrollment are permitted to reduce their overall spending on teacher salaries, while all other districts must at least maintain their current levels. By law, however, districts cannot cut salaries of existing employees.

Shelby County Schools also is bracing to lose $31 million in state funding through the cost differential factor (CDF), which has been a bonus for districts with high costs of living but would be phased out under the bill. But Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner, said that won’t hurt Shelby County Schools in the end.

“If we were not making any CDF adjustments, we would have to reduce improvements designated for other areas — most notably in the salary component, of which Shelby receives a large portion,” he said in an email. He noted that state law maintains districts at 2015-16 funding levels. “This means no district will receive less funds than this year due to CDF changes and Shelby County will certainly see a significant state funding improvement from this legislation and budget,” he said.

Corrections & clarifications: April 12, 2016:  A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gov. Haslam has proposed increased spending for teacher salaries by $178 million. The actual figure is $105 million. The updated story also clarifies that, by law, districts cannot reduce teacher salaries. The story deletes a paragraph that incorrectly stated that a budget amendment related to the cost differential factor was sponsored by Rep. Charles Sargent. It was not. The penultimate paragraph also clarifies that the budget’s cost differential factor is related to local cost of living, not student enrollment. The story was updated with quotes from deputy commissioner of education Stephen Smith.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

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.”