budget season

Shelby County Commissioners recommend less aggressive pre-K funding plan

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student plays in a Porter-Leath classroom, Shelby County's largest pre-K provider. County government is looking to add pre-K seats by 2022.

Shelby County’s pre-K committee has recommended delaying additional early childhood spending until 2020.

The committee voted 4-2 Tuesday in favor of a plan that pushes back by a year funding increases for free, need-based pre-K programs. The full Commision is slated to vote Monday on the county budget for the fiscal year 2019, which includes pre-K funding.

Tuesday’s vote walks back Commissioner Steve Basar’s recent proposal, which had the county adding an additional $2.5 million for pre-K this calendar year and contributing $15.1 million a year toward pre-K by 2021.

In the committee session, Commissioners Van Turner, Melvin Burgess, George Chism, and Reginald Milton voted to approve the new recommendation, crafted by Wanda Richards, director of administration and finance for the county. Commissioners Steve Basar and Willie Brooks voted against it.

“I want us to add seats at the same level as in my proposal,” Basar said, of his desire to fast-track additional pre-K seats. “That’s why I voted against this plan today.”

Under the new recommendation, the county would contribute $3 million for pre-K in the fiscal year 2019, as it has for the past several years, and the number of free pre-K seats in the county would hold steady at about 7,500. The county would then add an additional $2.5 million for 2020, and continue to scale up to a total $8 million by 2022.

Currently, about 7,420 of the country’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and those seats are funded with a combination of city, county, state, federal and philanthropic dollars. A coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success — an organization tasked with improving educational outcomes countywide — has been working to close the funding gap. The consortium is seeking to raise $16 million in public funding for the pre-K seats.

That money is part of its  $40 million plan to raise the level of early childhood education in Memphis. The group is counting on private philanthropy to cover the remaining $24 million, and that money will be earmarked for home visitation services, high-quality childcare, and tracking data.

The expiration of an $8 million federal grant in 2019 could reduce free pre-K seats by 1,000 if additional revenue doesn’t come through. To pay for every child who can not afford pre-K, Memphis would need about 8,400 seats, according to Seeding Success, at the total cost of about  $16 million a year.

A sticking point for the committee was over whether Shelby County Schools district or the county itself would add to its pre-K budget for the 2019 year.

The school district approved an increase of $2.4 million to $4.8 million in pre-K funding for 2019, said Shante Avant, the Shelby County Schools board chair, who was present at the meeting. But the school budget won’t be officially approved until the county commission votes on it this month. The county is the funding body for the schools.

If approved, the district’s increase in funding will allow the county to maintain its 7,500 pre-K seats for 2019-2020 despite the expiration of the federal grant. The county’s own increase in money, combined with new city funding and district funding, would total $16.6 million by 2022 — creating 1,000 new seats and making free pre-K available to all who qualify.

Melvin Burgess, the committee’s chair, said he felt Tuesday’s vote was a good step forward.

“We needed to get the ball rolling,” Burgess said. “We can always amend this recommendation once we approve the [Shelby County Schools] budget.”

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.