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).

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.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”