School Finance

School finance update passes floor test

The proposed rewrite of Colorado’s school funding system won preliminary House approval Monday, with approval of two amendments intended to assuage the concerns of key interest groups.

Sen. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon

“There is nothing more important to Colorado than a well-educated population,” said prime sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. “Senate Bill 13-213 is a very significant piece of education legislation. … Our current school finance act is not working. It’s outdated.”

Republican opponents of the bill had a different view.

“The issue is the current school finance system hasn’t been adequately funded, and yet we say it doesn’t work,” argued Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a former school superintendent.

Rep Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, said, “What we see in this bill is more of the status quo.”

The 3 1/2-hour debate was dominated by enthusiastic but doomed attempts by minority Republicans to amend the bill. Proposed changes included extending the school year, providing more money for charter schools, raising pay for teachers of at-risk students and even adding the contents of a dead parent trigger bill onto SB 13-213.

Of more importance were two Democratic amendments that passed. One would increase funding for at-risk students in some districts where fewer than half of the enrollment is at-risk. The other changes the bill’s provisions relating to principal autonomy in spending some at-risk funding. Those changes had been pushed by some large suburban districts and by the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Major elements of the bill would fully fund preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten for all students, provide a substantial increase in financial support for at-risk students and English language learners, give districts more flexibility to raise revenue locally and give principals more autonomy in spending some at-risk and ELL funding from the state.

The bill also would change how enrollment is counted, require more detailed financial reporting by schools and districts and mandate periodic studies of school funding and the effectiveness of the new funding system. The new system would roll out in 2015-16.

The brainchild of Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, SB 13-213 grew out of nearly two years of study and consultation by a coalition of education and civic groups known as the Colorado School Finance Partnership.

But all those discussions didn’t mean the bill has had a smooth path through the legislature. Some suburban districts were unhappy that they’d receive smaller per-student increases than high-poverty districts like Denver and Aurora. Many charter schools were unhappy with their proposed funding while districts had different concerns about charter provisions. There also was pressure to expand to expand the possible uses of a $100 million innovation fund, which originally was restricted to lengthening of the school year for districts that want to do that.

The bill awaits a final House roll-call vote, and then the House and Senate will have to agree on amendments. That isn’t expected to be a major problem, given that the successful House amendments were carefully monitored and negotiated by Johnston and his staff.

So although the bill now looks likely to pass, the final say will be with the voters. The bill has a price tag of about $1 billion, and funding it requires approval of an income tax increase by voters. Two sets of possible tax-increase ballot measures are pending, and proponents are expected to decide in a few weeks which one to propose to voters.

Amendment after amendment

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, proposed many of the unsuccessful GOP amendments on the school finance bill.
Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, proposed many of the unsuccessful GOP amendments on the school finance bill.

Here’s more detail on the key Democratic amendments passed Monday:

• The bill includes a “concentration” factor that tends to reward districts with very high percentages of at-risk students and English language learners, such as Denver and Aurora. That prompted districts with lower concentrations but significant numbers, such as Jefferson County, to complain. An amendment passed Monday increases per-pupil at-risk funding for 15 districts, including Jefferson County, St. Vrain, Mesa 51, Thompson, Brighton and Pueblo 70. Most districts would realize $274 more per at-risk student.

• The bill originally proposed that principals be given the freedom to decide how to spend state funding for at-risk and ELL students. The Colorado Association of School Boards was adamantly opposed to that, arguing it violated constitutional guarantees of local control. Business groups liked the provision because they like “backpack” funding. The amendment approved Monday gives school board review power over principals’ spending plans.

• The bill’s approach to charter school funding has been a hotly contested issue. An amendment adopted Monday creates a formula for distribution of extra funding to charters to compensate for facilities costs, something that some charters currently havo cover from per-pupil instructional revenues.

Republican amendments covered the waterfront, and proposed, among other things:

  • Appending an A-F school and district grading system and a parent trigger provision to the bill. (Both were contained in House Bill 13-1172, killed earlier in the session.
  • Adding 10 more days to the school year.
  • Increased funding for charter schools.
  • Bonus pay for teachers who work with at-risk students.
  • Changing the bill’s definition of at-risk and diluting the at-risk and ELL concentration factors.
  • A ban on extracurricular and transportation fees.

One Republican amendment, proposed by Murray, R-Castle Rock, was approved. It would provide $1 million for principal training in budgeting, part of the backpack funding issue.

Republicans proposed more than 20 amendments (not counting Murray’s and two that were withdrawn), compared to 18 proposed by Hamner and her Democratic allies. GOP members also tried “do overs” on eight amendments, as is allowed at the end of preliminary consideration.

Late in the debate, after the initial round of amending was done, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, came to the microphone to tease Democrats about the complicated algebraic equation – with square roots – that’s included in the bill, in the section covering how state and local shares of school funding are to be calculated.

“Nobody can explain this funding formula,” Gerou complained. “You don’t understand your funding formula.”

Democrats were a little shaky on that issue. Hamner said, “The only people who will understand the formula are our district chief financial officers.”

One school district lobbyist, watching the proceedings from the House gallery, quipped that maybe even the CFOs don’t grasp everything about SB 13-213.

[View the story “House floor debate on SB 13-213” on Storify]

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”


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.