wish list

McQueen wants teacher pay to go up and local costs to go down for Tennessee’s student intervention program

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam has named a working group to review school safety in Tennessee. He urged them to "move quickly" as the state seeks to avoid a school shooting like last month's in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

As Gov. Bill Haslam prepares the final budget of his administration, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is asking to increase teacher pay for a third straight year.

She also wants the state to finally help school districts pay for Tennessee’s required but unfunded intervention program aimed at keeping struggling students from falling through the cracks.

McQueen presented her wish list to the governor during budget hearings Tuesday at the State Capitol.

Tennessee is projecting a slowdown in the growth of tax revenue next fiscal year — about $350 million compared to $1 billion this year — but Haslam says that investing in teacher pay continues to be a priority of his two-term administration.

“We want to continue to fund teacher salaries the best we can,” he said following Tuesday’s budget presentations.

McQueen offered up $73 million in specific requests, the bulk of which would cover growth and inflationary costs associated with the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.  The list also includes $10 million for school improvement grants for “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, another $6 million to help charter schools pay for facilities for a second year in a row, and almost $4.5 million for the state’s reading initiative in its third year.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

But she did not attach dollar amounts for her big-ticket requests like teacher pay and the unfunded program known as Response to Instruction and Intervention, or RTI. She told reporters later that her department will pound out those important details with Haslam’s administration during the months ahead before the governor presents his final spending proposal to lawmakers in February.

Citing a $450 million increase in state allocations for teacher salaries in the last three years, McQueen said “we’re going to continue to commit to (raising pay).”

“Certainly, this is a tighter budget year than we had last year, so we have to look at the big picture around compensation before we can give an exact amount,” she told Chalkbeat.

Tennessee launched RTI in elementary schools in 2014 as a way to identify individual students’ learning needs early and then to offer additional supports. Now entering its fourth year, the program is in middle and high schools too, but still without additional state money to pay for it.

That’s been a source of frustration for districts that have had to shift existing resources to pay for the state’s mandate. Sometimes, for instance, they’ve cut classroom teacher positions in order to hire RTI specialists.

The program has been cited in several funding lawsuits against the state by districts in Memphis and Chattanooga, but McQueen told reporters that her request is based on research, not litigation.

“We have come to the conclusion that RTI has been very effective, both in helping us with special needs identification … but also ensuring that our kids are getting what they need based on their individual needs,” McQueen said of a study released last year. “… We wanted to come forth (with funding) based on that full review.”

The study reported that the program’s impact on student growth has varied considerably from school to school and can only be effective if implemented correctly.

The commissioner also asked for money to train social studies teachers on new standards that will reach Tennessee classrooms in the fall of 2019. In addition, she wants funding to launch a new leadership initiative to train and equip principals, especially for the state’s highest-needs schools.

“While teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor in moving student achievement, we know that principals are the second,” she told Haslam. “Teachers follow effective principals. They want to work for effective principals.”

Haslam told reporters later that McQueen’s leadership initiative is a strategic investment that he believes is smart. “With all the discussion around education reform, I’m convinced that having the right leader in the building makes more difference than anything,” he said.

This fiscal year, more than $6 billion of Tennessee’s $37 billion budget went to K-12 education, about 96 percent of which was distributed directly to districts. About $5 billion of that is generated from state and local taxes, with the balance coming from the federal government.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.