School Finance

Resolving a $300 million difference

Key senators are negotiating amendments to the proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school funding system ahead of an important floor debate on Monday.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo

At issue is an increase of more than $300 million in the bill’s cost that was caused by amendments added to Senate Bill 13-213 by the Senate Education Committee on March 21. (See this EdNews story for details on that hearing.)

Those committee changes pushed the bill’s estimated total cost to $1.4 billion instead of the original $1.1 billion, according to a legislative staff estimate issued late Wednesday.

The problem for supporters is that the new system would go into effect only if voters approve a state increase to pay for it, and the proposed ballot measures that have been submitted would raise only $950 million to $1 billion.

Bill prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said Thursday the amount of money currently required by the bill “is unsustainable.” His partner in SB 13-213, Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, said, “We can’t pass a bill with $1.4 billion in it.”

They’re working with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, sponsor of the most costly amendment approved in committee.

The three chatted amicably in the Senate chamber late Thursday morning just before meeting with legislative staff to work on potential amendments for debate when the bill has its first floor hearing on Monday.

Todd told EdNews that she ideally would like more money in the bill but agrees with the need to bring down its total cost. “I know the limits that have been set.”

What the bill would do

The bill, the first serious attempt to change the school funding formula in two decades, is the product of nearly two years of work by Johnston and Heath and a coalition named the School Finance Partnership, a coalition of education, civic and business groups.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates, some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs and more flexibility for districts in seeking local tax increases.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

Johnston has called the bill “a grand bargain” to both increase funding for districts, which have experienced significant budget cuts in the last four years, and to target funding to areas where sponsors see the greatest need, early childhood and at-risk students.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, not the legislature, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Why and how it was amended

Johnston has been crisscrossing the state for more than a year, meeting with education, civic and business groups to sell his plan. He generally was well received, but questions about his plan quickly bubbled up after the bill was introduced in early March and the district-by-district financial impacts were calculated.

While most districts would receive some funding increases, much of the growth went to districts with the highest concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and of English language learners. Those included big districts like Aurora and Denver and smaller districts like Commerce City, Greeley and Sheridan.

Large suburban districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Jefferson County and St. Vrain didn’t do so well on a per-pupil basis under the original version of the bill.

District reaction has been mixed. Officials from Cherry Creek and Douglas County have been critical of the original bill, while St. Vrain, for instance, supported it.

And 24 districts, mostly smaller ones, would have lost funding.

All those worries were on display when Senate Education held three hearings on the bill starting on March 19.

Two crucial amendments were added during the final meeting on March 21.

Johnston proposed an amendment to protect funding for the 24 small districts, adding about $33 million to the bill’s cost.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Todd, over Johnston’s opposition, proposed and successfully passed an amendment to create “floor” funding of about $7,400 per student for the large suburban districts that otherwise would receive less money under Johnston’s original formula. Todd’s vote was needed to get the bill to the floor, and she made it clear she needed the amendment passed to vote yes on the bill.

What happens next?

If Johnston, Todd and Heath agree on amendments, they will be presented to and voted on by the full Senate during preliminary consideration on Monday.

Trimming the bill’s cost may require adjustment of the funding weights assigned to at-risk and ELL students, lowering of Todd’s “floor” for districts and other tweaks to the complicated details of the 174-page bill.

“We’re still playing with the floor and still looking at the ELL and at-risk factors,” Todd said Thursday.

Do your homework

Legislative staff on Wednesday released a summary of SB 13-213 as amended by Senate Education. Read it here.

Researchers also released four spreadsheets to show the projected impact on individual districts, based on different scenarios about implementation of SB 13-213. Find links to those documents on this page.

The Department of Education on Thursday also released its own district-by-district spreadsheet; it’s the first link on this page.

Due to the complexity of the bill and the different scenarios used in various spreadsheets, number totals can differ, and it’s easy to get confused. The best figures for what the bill would do as it heads to the Senate floor are probably in this legislative estimate. See column (i) for projected per-pupil amounts by district.

The CDE projects that the bill in its current form would generate average statewide per-pupil funding of $7,841, compared to $6,603 currently.

It’s also important to note that all the figures in these documents will change based on whatever amendments the Senate passes Monday.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”