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.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.