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.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.