From the Statehouse

Budget woes loom again for 2011-12

Legislators Monday got some modest good news about the 2010-11 budget but some sobering forecasts about 2011-12.

The good news is that the 2010-11 budget, which goes into effect July 1, probably won’t need further major cuts beyond a $75 million adjustment by Gov. Bill Ritter in order to keep the state’s reserve at legal levels.

Legislative economist Natalie Mullis
Natalie Mullis, legislative chief economist, briefed lawmakers June 21 on state quarterly revenue forecasts.

Ritter said Monday afternoon that he hopes K-12 funding and higher education can be spared from the $75 million trim, but said, “Nothing is off the table.”

The governor said, “I’m very hopeful” schools can be spared further cuts but added, “Where K-12 education becomes vulnerable again is if Medicaid is not extended.”

To help ease state budget woes, the federal government has been picking up a larger share of Medicaid costs than normal, but that ends in December. A proposal to extend the higher payments is facing tough going in Congress, particularly in the Senate. If the program isn’t extended, Colorado would have to scramble to come up with $245 million or make cuts to cover that amount.

“We’re watching the Medicaid situation closely over the summer,” Ritter said, adding he hopes things will become clearer before Congress’ August recess.

Ritter also said, “It’s our hope we don’t have to do anything to impact higher education again.” The $75 million is about 1 percent of the state’s general fund. Ritter promised a package of recommendations in August.

The bad news is that the 2011 legislature may need to make about $1 billion in cuts to the 2011-12 budget, depending on future levels of federal support for Medicaid; on inflation; on growth in the numbers of prison inmates, sick people, school kids and college students; and on how lawmakers decide to replace one-time sources of money that were used to balance the 2010-11 budget, such as federal stimulus funds.

“We have a pretty tough budget year ahead of us,” said Natalie Mullis, the legislature’s chief economist.

“It looks like we will another rough year in 2011-12,” agreed Lisa Esgar, deputy director of the executive branch’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

Because state support for K-12 schools and higher education spending consumes nearly 40 percent of total state spending and more than half of the tax-supported general fund, any cuts are expected to fall heavily on education.

Some legislative leaders previously estimated that K-12 and higher ed could see cuts of $300 million each in 2011-12.

The two revenue forecasts released Monday offer no detailed hints of what education cuts might look like – it’s much too early in the game for that.

Here’s the overview of the budget situation:

2009-10: The state will end the year on June 30 in the black, but the reserve will be $51.7 million less than the required $132.6 million. (The OSPB estimates the reserve shortfall at $74.5 million.) The shortfall doesn’t have to be covered before the end of the year and can be rolled into 2010-11.

2010-11: Sufficient revenues are expected to cover the spending approved by the 2010 legislature, but again the reserve will fall short of required levels. Legislative Council staff estimate about $37 million will be needed to return the reserve to an acceptable level. (OSPB projects a higher number.)

2011-12: In addition to another $61.4 million reserve shortfall, lawmakers will have to replace (or cut) $617 million in one-time funds and cover (or ignore) an estimated $300 million in caseload increases. That makes up the $1 billion.

Some observers think the shortfall could be larger noting, for instance, that school districts’ local revenue likely will decline for 2011-12, putting pressure on the state to cover the difference.

The $1 billion figure didn’t come as a major shock. “This wound up not surprising us a great deal,” Ritter said. Informal estimates in that ballpark were circulating during the closing days of the 2010 session, which adjourned May 12.

But, Monday’s release of the formal quarterly revenue forecasts by legislative staff and OSPB mark a key point in the 2011-12 budget process and begin to focus the issue for legislators.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter discussed the state budget situation during a news conference June 21.

Executive branch departments already are refining their 2011-12 requests, another set of forecasts will be issued in late September and Ritter has to submit his 2011-12 budget to the Joint Budget Committee by Nov. 1. The panel will hold budget hearings in November and December, and another set of forecasts in late December will update the situation just before the 2011 session convenes.

The national recession began affecting state government in 2009-10 budget year, which is about to end. Lawmakers last spring had to make significant mid-year adjustments in spending, including a $130 million cut in K-12 support. Creation of a balanced 2010-11 budget required significant cuts and revenue shifts.

Overall, there have been $3.5 billion in state budget cuts and adjustment over three fiscal years, Ritter noted.

Total program spending for K-12 schools was about $5.4 billion in 2008-09 and was supposed to rise to nearly $5.7 billion this year, before the midyear adjustments trimmed it back to just under $5.6 billion.

Using a narrow interpretation of the Amendment 23 school-funding formula, the legislature approved about $5.4 billion in total program funding for 2010-11. Full A23 funding would have been about $5.8 billion. The 2010 school finance law recommends the same $5.4 billion figure for 2011-12, although that can be changed by the 2011 legislature.

(Total program funding is the amount of state aid and local revenues used for basic classroom and administrative operations. It doesn’t include additional state aid for such things as transportation and special programs, some federal programs and district revenues from bond issues.)

School districts have responded with layoffs, wage freezes and other cuts of a magnitude Colorado schools haven’t seen in years. (See the One-Stop Budget Cuts Info Center for details.)

Spending at state colleges and universities was maintained at just under $2 billion for 2010-11 – but only with the help of significant federal stimulus support and 9 percent tuition increases for resident undergraduate students. Higher ed is seen as particularly vulnerable to cuts in 2011-12. Senate Bill 10-003, the major flexibility legislation passed last spring, requires colleges to prepare reports on how they would handle a 50 percent cut in state support. Those are due next autumn.

Both forecasts found some some signs of economic hope.

“Both Colorado and the national economy are embarking on a very delicate recovery,” said Kate Watkins, a legislative economist, during the morning JBC meeting where the forecasts were unveiled.

“While the economy is recovering, it is very slow,” Ritter said. “We do believe the economy will recover” in time for the 2012-13 budget year – long after Ritter has left office.

(Both forecasts provide a wealth of information about tax revenues and  the economy of the state and its regions. See below for links to the full forecasts.)

Do your homework

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.