Who Is In Charge

Finance bill gets a big tweak

This story was updated on March 22 to add additional information about the possible impacts of the amendment added Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill that proposes a major shift in the way Colorado funds K-12 education.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

But approval came only after passage of an amendment that increases the bill’s price tag by about 20 percent, an issue certain to be revisited when the bill reaches the Senate floor, which probably won’t happen until April Fool’s Day at the earliest.

Senate Bill 13-213 is in a situation much like a car that has had major work done in one body shop and now is being towed to another garage for more work.

The committee vote came at the end of the third meeting the panel has held this week on the measure, which is sponsored by Democratic committee members Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder. The bill is considered the most important education legislation of the 2013 session, and Johnston calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize how Colorado pays for it schools.

Johnston and Heath have been working on the bill for more than a year and have held scores of meetings with education interest groups and others to discuss the goals of the proposal.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed. (Friday is the deadline for ballot proposals to be filed.)

The central feature of the plan is a significant shift of funding to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. That would benefit districts like Denver and Aurora. Large districts with a lower concentration of such students, such as Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Jefferson County, would receive smaller increases in per-pupil funding.

That emerged as a major issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican members of Senate Education expressing worries about the bill’s impact on medium to large suburban districts with smaller concentrations of disadvantaged students.

That debate came to a head Thursday afternoon with an amendment proposed by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Her proposal was opposed by Johnston and Heath, but its passage probably ensured that the bill got out of committee.

Todd, a retired teacher and veteran legislator, said she was concerned by the “disparity” between districts like Aurora and Cherry Creek in the bill. “All districts have to feel like they’re coming away from the table with a win for their children.”

She proposed an amendment that essentially would bring such districts up to the statewide per-pupil average with a “bonus” payment every year, even if the bill’s formula set them at a lower amount. That would raise the estimated $950 million cost of the bill by an additional $220 million a year, according to Johnston. (However, the impact of the amendment hasn’t been fully calculated, and some observers think the cost could be different.)

The amendment would set a per-student “floor” of $7,495 for all districts, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, who has been following work on the bill.

Johnston opposed Todd’s amendment, but its passage might have been the price he had to pay to get the bill out of committee. “It would be very difficult for me to vote yes on the bill as it is now,” Todd said before the vote. Approving her amendment would “keep the conversation alive. … I want to get this bill out of committee.”

“The hard question is where we are you going to finding the $220 million,” Johnston said. Johnston and his allies have said the proposed ballot measure probably can’t exceed $1 billion and have a chance at voter approval.

Republicans voted yes before they voted no

Todd’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote, with Todd, chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and all four committee Republicans voting for it.

Those Republicans – Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker – essentially voted for the bill before they voted against it. By supporting the amendment they voted to make the bill richer than Johnston’s version. But they all were no votes on the final motion to send SB 13-213 to the Senate floor.

They cited concerns about the proposal’s costs and that it doesn’t contain enough “reform.” The bill was sent to the floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. That wasn’t necessarily a good sign for Johnston, who in the past has relied on GOP votes to pass such key measures as Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law.

There had been talk that the bill would be heard on the Senate floor Friday, but Johnston said senators need time to study it and that the bill won’t be debated until April 1 at the earliest. Fresh calculations of the district-by-district impacts of the amended bill aren’t expected until the middle of next week.

He also said, “Sen. Todd is going to have to help me think about how we balance the budget. I’ll sit down with Sen. Todd and figure out a compromise.”

If the bill passes on the Senate floor during the first week of April, it will face a tight timeline to get through the House, because the legislature has a drop-dead adjournment deadline of May 8.

A weird opening act

Before it even got to school finance, Senate Education burned up an hour on Senate Bill 13-201, which proposes to designate shelter dogs and cats as the official “state pets.”

The bill, proposed by a group of Walsenburg middle school students, follows a traditional pattern of students proposing state fossils or whatever. Such bills usually are feel-good measures that allows lawmakers to compliment students on their interest in the legislative process.

But SB 13-201, sponsored by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, actually had opposition.

Paid lobbyist Dan Anglin, representing the Colorado Association of Dog Clubs and the Colorado Pet Association (which includes pet stores), urging the committee to defeat the bill, saying it “discriminates” against pets available at outlets other than shelters.

The committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill on to the Senate floor.

Breakfast after the bell still alive

Speaking of feel-good bills, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal had its first Senate hearing Thursday in the health committee.

The bill, pushed by a variety of child health and other advocacy groups, proposes that all students in certain high-poverty schools be served free breakfast after school starts. Many school districts have complained that the bill could force startup costs on financially strapped schools, and the bill was amended in the House in an attempt to ease some of those worries. (See this story for further details.)

Those amendments apparently didn’t calm everyone’s fears, and a string of district nutrition directors urged the committee to make further modifications to the bill. The health panel didn’t amend the bill further. It passed on a narrow 4-3 vote.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

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.