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 It’s outdated.”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]

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.