School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

School board member Miska Clay Bibbs said she requested that the administration amend its proposal with more details before the panel schedules to vote on it.

Clarification, Dec. 1, 2017: A previous version of this story stated that the school board was expected to vote on the proposal in December. A date has not been set yet, because a board member requested that the administration amend its proposal with additional details before a vote.

behind the budget

With House plan that adds money for vulnerable kids, all Indianapolis districts would gain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township, along with the other Marion County districts, would see more per-student funding if a House budget proposal moves forward.

Every district in Indianapolis is tentatively slated to get more state dollars per student under House Republicans’ 2019 budget plan released this week — exceeding some school leaders’ expectations.

For the most part, new money added to the budget to fund each student along with higher enrollment estimates are driving the increases. But even though some districts are projected to lose students, they would still get more money because of changes to Indiana’s funding formula that add money for vulnerable students and because lawmakers put more money in the budget overall.

“I just didn’t think they’d be able to reach that level when they started the session,” said Patrick Mapes, superintendent in Perry Township. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district, per-student funding is expected to go up more than 3 percent to $8,029 from $7,764. Overall, the district would see about 4 percent more in total state dollars. Compared to other districts, IPS receives more per student in part because of the number of students there from low-income families. Having more English-learners and students with disabilities can also bring in additional funding per-student.

“There are still too many moving pieces in other parts of the comprehensive budget proposal to get a clear picture of what this will ultimately mean for our students and employees,” an IPS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The estimates are far from final, as the Senate will still offer its own budget draft and lawmakers will eventually have to come to a compromise. But the House draft, which easily passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Monday, will likely see support from the full House in the coming week.

This year, district funding estimates could be even more volatile because of problems with a calculation that drives extra aid to districts with larger shares of students from low-income families. It’s unclear how this might affect schools because the calculations were not changed from last year.

“We used the numbers that we felt gave schools the most realistic proposal,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Todd Huston. He said that he was not sure when more accurate projections would be available, but House Republican staff was working with other state agencies to dig into the problem.

The budget draft proposes increasing Indiana’s contributions to schools by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020, and $5,549 per student in 2021.

House lawmakers also made some big overall changes to how schools are funded that do more to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Funding for preschool for students with disabilities increased for the first time in more than 25 years, going from $2,750 per student currently, to $2,875 per student in 2020, and $3,000 per student by 2021. In 2018, about 13,000 students qualified for the program, costing the state about $36 million. The increased grant would up those totals to about $37.3 million in 2020 and $39 million in 2021.

The budget draft would also send more money to educate students learning English as a new language for the fourth year in a row. Last year, lawmakers set aside about $32 million. Over the next two years, there’d be more than $40 million available for grants, at $325 per student, up from $300 previously.

Higher per-student grants for English learners would help the district shift more money to teachers and other employees, said Mapes, the Perry Township superintendent. Raising teacher salaries has been a hot topic during this year’s legislative session, and while money is not specifically earmarked for raises in the House budget plan, Mapes said it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s local control,” Mapes said. “We have an elected school board whose job is to make that decision for each school corporation in the state. It’s not the job of the legislature to direct down a salary schedule.”

In Beech Grove, the funding forecast is slightly less optimistic — the district is the only in the county projected to lose funding overall through 2021, by a small margin of less than 1 percent. That’s driven by a projected loss of about 116 students out of a total of 3,033.

“We all need to take three steps back and not panic because … there’s a factor here that’s real critical — the standpoint that our enrollment has gone up for nine straight years until this year,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent in the district. Lawmakers “are estimating our enrollment is going to continue to drop.”

Kaiser noted that the district does have a high rate of students transferring in from outside the district — Beech Grove had the second highest rate of students transferring into the district last year, with almost 1,200 students coming in. Like the rest of the county, Beech Grove is expected to get more dollars per student, so if transfers work out like Kaiser expects, the additional money would turn things around. He said he isn’t sure why enrollment was down last year.

“We’re hoping last year’s drop in enrollment was a blip on the horizon,” Kaiser said. “And if it’s not, then we’ll have to decide what we want to do.”

Part of Kaiser’s strategy is going to district voters in the fall to ask them to approve a tax increase — a move many school districts across the state, including IPS, are increasingly making to bring in more revenue.

One group that would see reductions under the House plan were virtual schools and virtual programs operated by school districts — they were cut from 100 percent of what students in traditional schools get to 90 percent, equivalent with students at virtual charter schools.

Lawmakers made the change in response to a rapidly growing virtual school in the Union school district, near Modoc, helped throw off school funding estimates in 2017. Even with the funding cut, budget projections show Union still would receive more state money, driven largely by growing enrollment.

House Republican staff did not confirm whether the change in all district-based virtual school funding resulted in cost-savings for the state, but a fiscal analysis from legislative staff estimated it could save the state about $3 million in 2020.

Take back

Higher property values mean Colorado is getting back millions from schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Colorado State Capitol

With student enrollment lower than anticipated and property tax revenues up in many districts, the state could get back as much as $77 million originally allocated for schools this year.

That’s a small portion of Colorado’s $7 billion K-12 education budget, and that money could be used to help fund Gov. Jared Polis’ universal full-day kindergarten plan. But some lawmakers want school districts, not the state, to control at least a portion of that money.

Citing the recent Denver teacher strike and concerns over school funding, the Colorado House voted Friday to let schools keep $12.9 million of that money. As early as Wednesday, the state Senate must either approve the amended Senate Bill 128 or send it back to a conference committee made up of the budget committee members.

It’s the first salvo in what could become a contentious debate over how the state funds schools.

Under Colorado law, the legislature determines how much money school districts should get for each student, with the state and school districts picking up a portion of the costs. If local districts raise more money, the state pays a correspondingly smaller amount. This year, school districts raised a collective $56.1 million more than predicted from local sources, mostly property tax revenue.

At the same time, schools are educating fewer students than predicted. Per pupil funding is based on estimates made months in advance. Enrollment for the current school year is 1,056 fewer than forecast, with at-risk student enrollment 9,893 fewer than the estimate.

The $77 million — or $64.1 million if the House amendment stands — could help fund full-day kindergarten, which is estimated to cost $227 million next year.

Or it could go into next year’s school finance act, which lays out how much money schools will get for 2019-20. Or it could go into the general fund, where it could be used for other needs.

But asking school districts to return money midway through the year can be difficult “because districts hire teachers for the start of the school year and then it’s really hard halfway through to say, ‘Oh, we can’t pay for you anymore,’” said Matt Cook, director of advocacy and public policy for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Last year, the state took back $104 million. With an increase in local revenues of $97 million, the total cut was only about $7 million, compared to a $21 million impact this year if the state keeps the full amount. Some of last year’s money was later put toward school safety measures.

The House amendment keeps average per-pupil funding at $8,137, instead of reducing it by about $15 on average as the Joint Budget Committee proposed.

The impact of these proposed changes varies among school districts, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. Some districts have seen larger changes in enrollment than others, and some districts raise a large portion of their revenue from local sources, while others are more dependent on state funding.

“[Y]ou’re all of a sudden again going to have a whole different group of kind of winners and losers in this process,” she said.

There’s also a political consideration for Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Everybody who ran for election this last year ran on funding education better, and that they were looking to try to solve the problem,” Rainey said.

In fact, attack ads in the 2018 election often cited votes on school finance amendments or promises to increase school funding.

The House amendment passed on a voice voice with apparent broad support. It replaced an earlier amendment that would have left all $77 million with the school districts.

“I think our next step for us would be what’s the financial, fiscal implication of the amendment and then wait to see what we hear from our staff,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget committee member.

How this relatively tiny slice of the pie is carved up could be instructive, going forward, education observers say.

“That’s always the big question every year, right?” Cook said. “How do we pay for everything? This year you’ve got the pressure for full-day kindergarten, so I think it’s going to be a very tough budget negotiation.”