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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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.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: