School funding

Haslam proposes 5 percent boost for K-12 education in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his 2017 State of the State address at the state Capitol in Nashville.

Free community college for all adults, not just graduating high school seniors, took top billing Monday night in Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address to lawmakers.

But K-12 education was also a focus, with a proposal to significantly increase spending for K-12 education for a third straight year. The 5 percent boost would go mainly to teacher pay, career technical education, English language learners, and charter schools.

Haslam speaks to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

In conjunction his seventh State of the State address, Haslam released a $37 billion proposed budget for 2017-18, including almost $230 million more for schools following a historic increase last year. Haslam said it’s one of the largest education funding increases in the state’s history and amounts to fully funding schools under the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program.

“Last year we had the largest funding increase for public education without a tax increase in the history of the state. This year we’re proposing one of the largest funding increases in Tennessee history while at the same time cutting $270 million in taxes. … Tennessee has shown it will not balance the budget on the backs of teachers and students,” said Haslam, noting that  education spending has increased $1.3 billion under his administration.

Still, the proposed hike doesn’t cover all of the needs identified in a 2016 state report around counselors, technology, and instructional staff. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, Tennessee was 43rd in the nation for per-pupil spending.

Haslam has said he wants Tennessee to become the nation’s fastest-improving state on teacher pay and, as with the last two years, his single biggest proposed increase is for teacher compensation. The governor is asking for an extra $100 million there — equating to a 4 percent increase — on the tails of $200 million in similar increases since 2015. But if the legislature approves the spending plan, it won’t guarantee that teachers will see that boost in their paychecks. Ultimately, school districts have flexibility on how they spend that money.

The governor proposed $22 million more for the state’s growing school population of English language learners. And in keeping with a new focus on high school education, career technical education would get a one-time boost of $15 million. He also earmarked $4.5 million more for the state’s literacy initiative known as Read to Be Ready, as requested by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

His budget singles out the state’s 100-plus charter schools with a one-time $6 million bump to help pay for facilities, now a sore point for the state’s growing charter sector. Buildings, utilities and repairs take up a significant portion of charters’ budgets. And though it’s only a small part of Haslam’s spending plan, the line item signals his administration’s commitment to charter schools as a mechanism to improve public schools through competition.

The free community college proposal, known as Tennessee Reconnect, drew enthusiastic applause from state legislators. If approved, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to offer all citizens — both high school students and adults — the chance to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate free of tuition and fees.

“Just as we did with Tennessee Promise, we’re making a clear statement to families: wherever you might fall on life’s path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said.

CORRECTION, Jan. 31, 2017: An earlier version incorrectly referred to a $183 million increase in school spending. The actual increase is $230 million. The $183 million figure refers to increases under the state’s school funding formula, the Basic Education Plan.

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.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”