charter funding

Comptroller report underscores ‘insufficient clarity, transparency’ in Tennessee funding for charter schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Delores Gresham (at right) presents a bill this year on the floor of the Tennessee Senate. Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, requested this week's report from the state comptroller's office.

Tennessee guidelines are so muddled on how funding should be allocated to charter schools that it’s unclear whether those schools are receiving the correct amount of money from their local districts, says a report released Tuesday by the state comptroller.

After analyzing five years of enrollment and funding data, the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability concluded that “there is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee.”

The report, requested last winter from Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, comes as debate intensifies in Tennessee about the cost and impact of charter school growth on traditional schools, as well as the adequacy of state funding for public education.

The State Department of Education already is preparing legislation to bring before the General Assembly next year to address some of the concerns about charter school funding.

The findings have special significance to Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, home to the vast majority of the state’s charter schools, which are independent but publicly funded schools operated under a charter contract between the school and its authorizing agency.

In Tennessee, local districts allocate funding to charter schools based on the district’s total funding from state and local governments, along with district and charter school enrollment. The report keys in on questions about which local district enrollment numbers to use when calculating money owed to charters. Districts generally use their previous-year enrollment.

Charter school funding = (state and local money / district enrollment) X charter school enrollment

But the report highlights one case in which the state instructed Shelby County Schools, seemingly against protocol, to use the district’s current-year enrollment instead of previous-year enrollment. That resulted in Shelby County Schools shelling out $517,000 more to charter schools at a time when Tennessee’s largest district was reeling from decreased funding due to an exodus of students entering six suburban municipal school districts created in 2014.

“State law, State Board of Education rules, and Tennessee Department of Education policies do not currently provide clear and complete definitions of formula components districts use to calculate charter school funding,” the report said. “The situation has resulted in a lack of uniformity in calculating funding for charter schools across the state.”

In growing districts, such as Metro Nashville, state guidelines are also unclear about allocation of additional state funds meant to offset cost of an increased student population. That ambiguity could cause charter operators to lose out on state money or give them an unfair increase if they aren’t growing at the same rate as the local district — all dependent on how administrators interpret the guidelines.

District leaders in both Memphis and Nashville have bemoaned the amount of education funding being siphoned off to charter schools. Nashville commissioned two independent studies in 2014 and 2015 on charter fiscal impact, both of which showed managing charter schools comes at considerable cost to the local district, largely because of the administrative tasks involved with approving and regulating them, as well as the fixed costs of school buildings and loss of student revenue.

"... There is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee."Office of Research and Education Accountability

To Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell, the report raises more questions about the state’s funding formulas than about districts’ handling of charter school funds.

“The real hypocrisy is the state talking about the lack of transparency and having a funding formula like (Basic Education Plan),” said Caldwell of the BEP, over which the district is suing the state. “The state has never done anything with the funding of education to be transparent about what they’re doing.”

Will Pinkston, a Nashville school board member and frequent charter school critic, was skeptical of report’s timing and of legislation being prepared by the state Education Department.

“This is a well-orchestrated prelude to a legislative agenda,” he said. “…This is about helping the charter movement.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Charter School Center commended efforts surrounding the report.

“Transparency and collaboration remain critical throughout this process and we look forward to working with the local districts and state officials to help establish increasingly more effective systems and procedures for accounting and distributing funds,” said a statement from the center.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy organization that promotes school choice, said the report rightly points out areas to improve with charter school funding, but misses the ongoing struggle for equitable funding for traditional schools.

“Are we also funding our traditional schools to what they’re needing? And the answer to that is no,” Grinter said. “We’re not doing enough at the state level, but the constant question is still going to be what we’re doing as a whole to make sure schools are getting the right amount of funding.”

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.

School Finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.