Who Is In Charge

Ritter holds the line on education cuts

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Take it from Vody
A23 formula set

A revised 2010-11 budget plan announced Thursday by Gov. Bill Ritter includes no additional cuts to K-12 support or to higher education.

Perhaps the most significant education news out of the governor’s announcement was that he’s open to some form of tuition flexibility for next year, if college presidents can come up with a proposal that won’t harm low- and middle-income students.

“We may be able to broaden this conversation about tuition flexibility,” Ritter said during a Capitol news conference.

Asked to elaborate, Ritter only said that if college presidents can develop a tuition proposal that he considers fair, he’ll take a look.

Ritter has proposed a 9 percent ceiling on tuition increases in the 2010-11 school year.

Gov. Bill Ritter speaks at budget news conference on Feb. 18, 2009.

Some college presidents, particularly at larger institutions and systems, want individual colleges boards to have complete freedom to set tuition rates and financial aid. They argue they could manage such a system and still maintain affordability.

Ritter, who frequently refers to the opportunities low tuition gave him at Colorado State University, up to now has been reluctant to take tuition control out of his and the legislature’s hands.

Speaking later to a Colorado Association of School Boards lunch, the governor was applauded when he stressed that he’s proposed no new K-12 cuts. He quipped, “That gives you some idea of the times we’re in [when] that’s the applause line – no new cuts.”

State school funding already has taken a hit of more than 2 percent in the current year, and Ritter earlier proposed an effective cut of more than 6 percent for 2010-11.

The original budget for K-12 spending for 2009-10 was $5.7 billion, including $2 billion in local revenue and $3.7 billion from the state.

Senate Bill 10-065, already passed by the legislature and signed into law, cut the state share by $110 million (and didn’t provide $20 million for increased enrollment), bringing the total to $5.58 billion.

Ritter’s original 2010-11 budget proposal, made last November, called for a 6.1 percent cut from what otherwise would have been expected under the Amendment 23, which would take total school support next year to $5.43 billion.

In order to make those cuts next year, the administration is interpreting Amendment 23 to cover only base state support of schools, about 75 percent of total state aid. The cuts would come from the other 25 percent, money used to equalize spending among districts.

School districts have been hard at work for weeks tweaking their 2009-10 spending (the $110 cutback was expected) and making plans for 2010-11.

Just this week the Durango and Hayden school boards formally declared “fiscal exigency,” a legally required first step toward layoffs; a Pueblo City board member raised the question of closing the district’s administration building; a citizen survey in Mesa County showed support for a four-day week and a shorter school year, and some Douglas County citizens told the school board they’d support tax increases to blunt the impact of a proposed $44 million cut.

Ritter’s 2010-11 higher education plan calls for a cut of about $60 million in state and federal stimulus support. But, overall college revenues, about $1.9 billion, would be about the same as this year if an overall 9 percent tuition increase is implemented.

The governor’s revised plan also includes a $135 million transfer from the state’s main general fund, to the State Education Fund, designed to stave off SEF insolvency for one year, and transfer of $45.2 million from the Early Achievers Scholarship Trust Fund, part of CollegeInvest, to the general fund and need-based scholarships. About $9 million would be left in the fund to support current recipients and current high school juniors and seniors who might became eligible. The program would end in 2016.

The governor’s overall proposal achieves a total $340 million in cuts, savings and fund transfers on top of the $1 billion in reductions proposed when he unveiled the original budget plan last November. The adjustments were made in response to state revenue forecasts that came out in late December.

Ritter’s Thursday announcement won’t be the last word on the 2010-11 budget. Further adjustments may be needed after the next formal state revenue forecasts are issued March 19. And the final decision on the budget rests with the legislature, based on numbers from the Joint Budget Committee.

Asked about the likelihood of additional cuts, to either the 2009-10 or 2010-11 budgets, Ritter said, “We’ll know more about this in April and May,” after 2009 income tax returns come in.

“We are past the worst of it, but we still have budget challenges,” the governor said. He also said there’s “a very real possibility the 2011-12 budget year could involve cutting.”

Take it from Vody

Vody Herrmann, school finance chief at the Department of Education, is highly regarded as a person who knows her numbers down to the last decimal point and who will help any school district with any question.

Herrmann spoke late Thursday afternoon to a Colorado Association of Schools Boards conference, and here are some snippets of what she had to say on key financial questions:

On cuts proposed so far: “We hope there are no further cuts. I can’t guarantee there won’t be.”

What the legislature might do with Ritter’s proposed 2010-11 cuts: “There could be all sorts of other suggestions [but] there isn’t more money.”

On Ritter’s cuts and Amendment 23: “I think this is setting a new base.” Schools won’t get back to 2009-10 funding levels “for four or five years. … Things look even tougher” in 2011-12.

What districts should do: “You need to have a little buffer. They [the state] could come back for $100 million or $50 million or $150 million” in budget pullbacks if state revenues continue to slump next year. “Just please be cautious. I just can’t say that enough.”

Inflation rate set for A23 formula

On Friday, school districts got a piece of good but essentially meaningless news when the federal government announced that the official 2009 Denver/Boulder/Greeley inflation rate was negative .6 percent.

The inflation rate is part of the Amendment 23 formula, which requires state school support to increase each year by inflation in the previous calendar year plus 1 percent, multiplied by enrollment.

State officials had been assuming 2009 inflation would be pegged at negative .9 percent, making the multiplier a measly plus .1 percent. With actual inflation pegged at minus .6 percent, the multiplier inches up to plus .4 percent.

That will mean a slightly larger increase than expected in categorical funds (money earmarked for transportation, special education and some other specific programs), but it won’t affect overall school spending in 2010-11.

That’s because the Ritter administration, pressed by the state’s budget woes, has set an overall target for K-12 aid that’s $260 million below 2009-10 levels.

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budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.