Charter policy showdown

Charter revenue-sharing bill advances to Senate floor debate

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

A bill requiring school districts to uniformly share some local revenues with their charter schools passed the Senate Education Committee on a 6-3 vote Thursday.

A companion measure containing various other law changes sought by charters passed by the same margin. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, joined all five committee Republicans in supporting both bills.

The two measures, Senate Bill 16-187 and Senate Bill 16-188, have resurfaced district-charter tensions that have flared and subsided since the state’s charter law was passed in 1993.

The nearly five-hour hearing provided the most substantive education policy discussion of the 2016 session, which has been otherwise low-key for education.

More than 30 witnesses spoke on the bills, but all the testimony boiled down to two issues — equity in funding versus local control and flexibility.

“There is not an even playing field across Colorado right now,” said James Cryan, founder of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter.

The key provision of SB 16-188 would require districts to share proceeds from local tax overrides with charters on a per-student basis.

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said sharing of override revenues is uneven across districts. The league claims that more than 40,000 of the state’s 108,000 charter students are in schools that don’t receive equitable sharing of those revenues.

Overrides explained
  • In addition to the property and vehicle taxes districts impose for basic school operating expenses, state law allows districts to raise additional property taxes – with voter approval.
  • In general, those overrides can total no more than 25 percent of a district’s basic operating budget, called Total Program Funding.
  • Override revenue can be designated for operating expenses, transportation, facilities, technology costs and full-day kindergarten.
  • Overrides can be indefinite or limited to a set number of years.
  • The 118 districts that have overrides collect a combined total of $860 million a year.
  • There’s been growing concern that overrides create inequity between districts because there’s a wide variation in property values among districts. That means some districts can raise significant revenue with only small tax-rate increases while others can raise little money even with large rate hikes.

But Linda Van Matre, a member of the Academy 20 school board called the bill “an unnecessary intrusion into local government.”

And Carrie Warren-Gully, a Littleton board member, said the bill “interferes with carefully negotiated agreements at the local level.” She was representing the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

The bills are expected to pass the Republican-majority Senate, but the prospects are more uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House. Charters aren’t a strictly partisan issue, and education reform groups backing the bills have ties with some Democratic lawmakers.

While groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado Children’s Campaign are promoting the bill, school districts and associated interest groups are lobbying hard against them and are focusing their efforts in the House.

Charter school advocates long have complained about perceived inequities in
sharing of local district override revenues.

The dollars-and-cents impact of the sharing provision in SB 16-188 is hard to determine, given gaps in data about charter funding and the bill’s exceptions to the sharing requirement.

Some of the issues that make it difficult to gauge the bill’s potential impact:

Most districts aren’t affected: Mandatory sharing of overrides would affect only about three-dozen districts that have both charters and overrides. Those do include all of the state’s 10 largest districts and 17 of the 20 biggest districts, including the majority of the state’s students.

There’s already sharing: Based on responses from member schools in 33 districts, the charter league estimates 61 percent of override revenues already are shared with charters. The league puts the “unshared” gap at about $24 million, based on a survey of some member schools.

But sharing policies vary by district, with some districts sharing 100 percent and others much less.

Critics of the bill also note that districts don’t give traditional schools a set per-pupil amount from overrides.

The gap is partly a guess: State law allows districts to collect overrides for a variety of purposes. In addition to general overrides used for operating expenses, revenues can be earmarked for transportation, facilities, technology costs and full-day kindergarten. Senate Bill 16-188 says districts don’t need to share override revenues that charters aren’t otherwise eligible for. For instance, a charter high school wouldn’t receive money from a full-day kindergarten override.

Current Department of Education data doesn’t break out how much money districts collect from different types of overrides, so it isn’t easy to calculate the exact amount of money subject to sharing.

Better data is coming: A 2014 law required the Department of Education to compile a detailed report on sharing of override revenues. The department is in the final stages of compiling that study. But Associate Commissioner Leanne Emm said last week that the document won’t be ready until mid-May. Lawmakers have to adjourn no later than May 11.

Charter School Institute: Schools supervised by the institute receive no share of override revenues because they have no formal ties to local districts. The institute is a state agency with the power to authorize charters independently of districts.

Under SB 16-188, the state would pay those schools what they would receive if they were authorized by districts. Legislative staff estimate the annual cost of that at $12.2 million. But SB 16-188 specifies that this provision won’t be funded right away.

Other provisions sought by charters are contained in SB 16-187 and include:

  • Formal notification from districts when vacant buildings and land are available.
  • Elimination of the current requirement that charters be open for five years before they can apply for state Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, funds.
  • Expanding use of funds charters currently receive for building needs so that they also can be used for maintenance.
  • Permitting charters in the state’s highest rating category to submit improvement plans every other year rather than annually.
  • Streamlining of audit requirements for charters with multiple campuses.
  • Requiring districts to provide more detailed accounting of services they provide to charters.

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.