Who Is In Charge

Key “surprises” in Hick budget

There’s relative good news and three surprises for education in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2012-13 state budget.

Colorado CapitolThe good news, relatively speaking, is that cuts to K-12 schools and higher education aren’t as deep as some had feared.

The surprises are:

  • A proposed hold back of $67.5 million intended for schools this year
  • A request for $7.7 million to implement new educator evaluations
  • A decision not to fund development of new state tests to replace CSAPs

Legislative leaders were briefed on the proposal Monday, and the budget was released this afternoon prior to a Hickenlooper news conference. The governor is required to submit a plan to the joint Budget Committee on Nov. 1.

“It’s not a question of choosing to do this,” Hickenlooper told reporters. “There is going to be serious resistance to all the cuts.”

“The two places that we are having significant reductions are K-12 and higher education,” budget director Henry Sobanet told reporters at a briefing earlier.

Key budget numbers

The plan proposes an $89 million reduction in total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic instructional operations. That’s about $160 a student. Current total program funding is about $5.2 billion, down some $228.9 million, about 4.2 percent, from 2010-11. Current average per pupil funding is a little under $6,500. (No district-by-district projections will be available until after the Department of Education receives updated enrollment and property tax revenue figures in December.)

Direct state support of state colleges and universities would drop 9.7 percent, taking it to $563 million from the current $619 million, which includes $519 million for institutions and $100 million from financial aid. Next year institutional support and financial aid each would take $30 million cuts.

“There are a few cuts that are very hard for me personally,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the financial aid cuts.

“It’s unfortunate that part of the reduction here is in financial aid … these reductions unfortunately are unavoidable,” Sobanet also said. Federal funds and money raised by individual institutions already provide the bulk of aid to Colorado college students.

Over the last five years K-12 enrollment has increased 6.8 percent and the higher ed student population has grown 20.5 percent.

Key education initiatives

The $67.5 million question

The 2011 legislature set aside $67.5 million to be allocated to some districts after Jan. 1, 2012, on the basis of enrollment growth and/or declines in local property tax collections. Hickenlooper is proposing that money not be spent in the current year but instead be rolled over for use in 2012-13.

AT A GLANCE

Stats

  • Total spending: $20 billion, +1.7%
  • General fund: $7.4 billion, +3.2%
  • K-12 general fund: $2.8 billion, down slightly
  • Higher ed general fund: $563 million, -9.7%
  • Revenue is 5% below 2007-08 peak

Highlights

  • 92% of increased spending goes to Medicaid and prisons
  • Budget would be lower than 2011-12 without Medicaid increases
  • Suspension of the senior property tax exemption (worth about $100 million) would continue

Total spending includes all state funds, including those the legislature doesn’t control, such as highway money. The general fund is the main account that lawmakers can budget.

Rep. Tom Massey, who engineered the original $67.5 million plan, said, “I’m sure we will get a chance to discuss” moving the money to 2012-13. “We’ll have to argue over that and any education cuts. … I’ve found the governor to be very open minded.” Massey, a Poncha Springs Republican, is chair of the House Education Committee.

Sobanet told Education News Colorado the administration feels delaying use of the money would be fairer to school districts since it would be distributed through the school finance formula. Under Massey’s 2011-12 plan, the money would go only to some districts.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said board members around the state have differing opinions on whether the money would be more welcome this budget year or next.

Funding for SB 10-191

The budget includes a $7.7 million request to fund implementation of the principal and teacher evaluation systems required by Senate Bill 10-191. Planning and some implementation already have started, but so far those efforts have been funded by existing budgets and outside grants.

Delaying the CSAP replacement

The governor decided not to grant the Department of Education’s request for $25 million to pay for design of new statewide tests that would launch in the spring of 2014.

“We think we can wait one more year,” said Sobanet, noting, “$25 million to redo CSAP was not something we were willing to make cuts for.” CDE leaders had been pushing for the funds because they believe a 2014 launch of new tests is needed for effective implementation of new state content standards and the educator evaluation systems. New multistate tests, which could be cheaper to acquire, are expected to be available in 2015.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond issued a carefully worded response to the plan to delay development of new tests. “While we understand the direction and priorities of the Governor, we continue to view a strong assessment system as critical to the state’s reform effort. … We’ll continue to raise this issue in future discussions with our lawmakers so Colorado can make an informed decision about what it wants for its statewide assessments,” he said.

Digging deeper

For those interested in school finance detail, the proposed budget assumes 3.5 percent inflation and 1.5 percent enrollment growth, both key factors in the Amendment 23 school funding formula. Two years ago the legislature introduced a “negative factor” that’s used to reduce the A23 formula to an amount the state can afford. Sobanet estimated the 2012-13 negative factor will cut K-12 spending $350 million from what A23 otherwise would have called for.

Sobanet said anticipated increases in local property tax revenues will mean that the state share of school funding may decline slightly.

One other bit of good news is that Hickenlooper proposes to end the two-year policy of having state employees contribute more of their salaries to pensions so that the state could save money by contributing less. That affected thousands of employees in the higher education system but didn’t apply to school districts and their teachers.

The bad news, Sobanet said, is that proposed higher employee contributions to health insurance costs will largely wipe out the pension contribution savings.

Sobanet, who’s director of the State Office of Planning and Budget, said the budget has five overarching principles:

  • Protection of the vulnerable, such as Medicaid recipients
  • Economic development
  • Continuation of education reforms
  • Modernizing state government
  • Improving long-term budget planning

Henry Sobanet
Henry Sobanet, director Office of State Planning and Budgeting / File photo
In his letter to the JBC, Hickenlooper wrote, “The budget reflects the ongoing work of closing the State’s structural budget gap and funding the demands of numerous federal and State Constitutional requirements. The proposal also contains several proposals to protect the most vulnerable Coloradans, promote economic growth, continue needed reforms in education and modernize State government.”

Sobanet said the possible passage of Proposition 103 wasn’t factored in to budget planning. “If it passed some of these reductions [in education] would not be necessary”

Release of the document is just the start of a long process that won’t end until next April or May, when the legislature finally passes the 2012-13 budget.

Lawmakers have the final say (although a governor can veto parts of a budget), and the legislature made some changes in the budget Hickenlooper proposed for the current, 2011-12 year.

For instance, the governor initially proposed a $332 million cut in K-12 spending, a figure lawmakers managed to whittle down to about $229 million.

There may be legislative fights over the continued suspension of the senior citizen property tax break and over education cuts. Updated state revenue forecasts will be made in late December and late March.

As to those forecasts and future budgets, Sobanet said, “The economy is recovering, but the revenue picture remains unsettled.”

Reaction roundup

Most of the reaction to the budget plan was nuanced, with people avoiding criticism of the governor but making it clear all aspects of the budget will be in play. Here’s a sampling:

“Educators, families and students do appreciate the efforts the Governor’s office made in minimizing the damage, [but] diverting funds from our investment in public education is the wrong strategy to advance prosperity and growth in Colorado.” – Bev Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association

“The governor has provided the Joint Budget Committee with a good starting point, but ultimately this is a legislative responsibility.” – Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont and a leader in efforts to minimize education cuts during the 2011 session


“While we appreciate many of the proposals the governor has made, the governor’s budget does raise some points of concern.” – Republican JBC members Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Jon Becker of Fort Morgan

“We will continue to work with the governor’s office and our colleagues across the aisle to find ways to minimize cuts to our classrooms.” – JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver

Text of Hickelooper budget to JBC and budget details (PDF)

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: