Who Is In Charge

JBC struggles with education budgets

There were faint glimmers of budgetary hope during a key Joint Budget Committee hearing Thursday, but they only involved variation in the possible size of cuts.

“There will be cuts to K-12. The question is how big,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, during the afternoon figure-setting session for the Department of Education.

The analysis presented to the committee by staff member Carolyn Kampman suggested that K-12 cuts next year could be as low as $290 million for 2011-12, instead of the $332 million proposed by the Hickenlooper administration. But a lot of financial pieces would have to fall into place for that to happen, including taking money from other education programs and from state school lands revenues.

Cuts also are unavoidable for the state colleges and universities, the subject of a morning figure-setting session. The good news there, from a college president’s point of view, was that the committee decided not to go with the deeper cuts proposed by staff analyst Eric Kurtz, instead opting for the smaller bite proposed by the Hickenlooper administration.

The JBC hearings Thursday kicked off what will be a crucial two weeks in legislative deliberations on the 2011-12 budget. The committee is expected to finish figure setting for all departments by the middle of next week, after which the staff will tote things up to see if the proposed budget is balanced. If the committee will need to trim some more.

Next Friday, March 18, fresh state revenue estimates will be given to the JBC by legislative and executive branch economists. If those estimates are rosier than the ones made in December, budget cuts won’t need to be as large as proposed. If state revenues have weakened, it’ll be time to cut deeper.

JBC staff director John Ziegler told committee members they’ll need to decide no later than March 22 how much of a K-12 cut to propose in order to have a balanced budget.

School funding history chart
Chart shows components of school funding over the last decade. Click to enlarge; note legend on right

The committee deferred that decision Thursday, with Ferrandino saying, “I’d rather do that target after the revenue forecast.” (School finance is controlled by two different bills – the main state budget, called the “long bill,” and the annual school finance act. The target Ferrandino referred to is the amount of the cut that will be dictated by the school finance act.)

To complicate things further, legislative Democrats, particularly in the Senate, are scrambling to find additional revenues and cuts to other programs that can be applied to K-12 spending.

One such proposal, Senate Bill 11-184, was passed by the Senate Finance Committee Thursday. It would establish a tax amnesty program next summer, with the extra revenue collected going to education. Some estimates put that at up to $15 million. Whether that plan and any others the Democrats come up with will succeed in the Republican-controlled House is iffy.

While the committee put off the big K-12 decision, it did approve several other Kampman recommendations that cut specialized education programs.

Those included cutting the Colorado Counselor Corps from $5 million to $2.5 million (Kampman recommended zero), elimination of funding for the Closing the Achievement Gap program and shutting down the School Leadership Academy.

Many such programs were pet projects of various legislators and created in the last three years.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, also raised the question of cutting the writing section of the CSAP tests to save money, but the discussion didn’t go any further. (That’s not to say it may not come back later.)

Panel can’t bear to cut colleges any more

Sources of higher education funding
Chart shows changes in sources of higher education funding over recent budget years. Click to enlarge.

The committee voted 5-0 to accept the Hickenlooper administration’s recommendation for college and university funding in 2011-12 – about $519 million in state tax support.

That’s down from the $620 million colleges received this year – a large chunk of that one-time federal stimulus funds. It’s also less than the $555 million requested by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. (But higher ed leaders have figured they could survive with anything north of $500 million.)

Committee analyst Eric Kurtz recommended $500 million, arguing that overall college funding has left higher ed no worse off than the rest of state government. Members didn’t want to go there.

“I’m having a really hard time with the conversation,” said Vice Chair Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “I can’t support it.”

Kurtz is right that direct state support is only part of the picture – total higher ed system funding next year is expected to be more than $2 billion, about three quarters of that from tuition.

Kurtz said institutions “can absorb” a $500 million funding level and “there’s potential to go lower,” also saying, “I don’t think higher education is worse off than the rest of state government.”

Ferrandino said, “I have come to understand Eric’s point of view after three years of butting heads” but “I think higher education has suffered.” Kurtz is known as something of a contrarian and regularly proposes provocative ideas for the committee to consider.

Committee members weren’t wild about the $519 million figure. “I would have liked to have held it to $555 million. I’m an unhappy yes,” said Gerou.

Ferrandino wasn’t comfortable with the CCHE formula for distributing the cuts by college, which fast-growing campuses like Metro State and the community colleges think penalizes them. “Even though I’m not happy with it, I will acquiesce,” he said.

But freshman Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said, “This is the right decision … and I hope higher education understands that.”

Do your homework

Read Kampman’s recommendations for K-12 (the heart is on pages 69-81, but remember the committee didn’t act on the cut “target” mentioned on page 77).

Read Kurtz’ higher education recommendations (remember that the JBC didn’t accept his main recommendation on page 42).

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: