Loopholes to the rescue

For a rural district facing potential state intervention, an unexpected rescue

PHOTO: Erik Hilton/Flickr
A view of Karval.

One of the first two districts to potentially face state sanctions for low performance may have just reversed its academic fortunes, thanks to a virtually unnoticed shift in state law.

Karval School District is a rural district of roughly 90 students in southeastern Colorado. Roughly two-thirds of the district’s students attend its online school, whose performance lagged sufficiently to place the entire district on the state’s watch list for lowest performing districts.

But when the school board voted to close the school in mid-June, observers were surprised to discover that the decision wasn’t tied to the school’s academics at all. Instead, district officials unearthed a small provision in last year’s school finance law that, finally, spelled the end for the faltering school.

The option to close Karval’s online school has been on the table since Todd Werner joined the district as superintendent two years ago. In addition to its perilous position on the state accountability clock, Karval’s online school had been shrinking for several years, falling to about 60 students in the fall of 2013 from nearly twice that much two years early.

“I was looking at those numbers from the day I walked into the district,” said Werner, who left the district this summer for a teaching job at Cheraw School District, 70 miles to the south. But the district was committed to keeping the online school open and pulling up its scores.

“We made some significant changes and we felt we were going in the right direction,” said Werner.

But even if Werner and his staff had wanted to close the school, both Karval and Vilas, the other district facing the end of the clock, were in a tight spot. The underperforming online schools bankrolled the districts’ brick and mortar operations.

As the state’s education commisioner Robert Hammond put it in a state board meeting with the two districts this spring, “If [your online schools] were out, you’d be in a good category.” But, he said, “without online, [I’m] not sure how you’d survive financially.”

But when Hammond made that statement, their situation had already changed. It was just that no one had caught on.

In spring of 2013, school finance was a central concern for Colorado state legislators. The topic of a total overhaul of Colorado’s school finance law, Senate Bill 213, dominated the conversation and shaped last year’s session. Less attention-getting was a provision introduced in a separate bill that required all districts receive funding for at least 50 students, even if they enroll fewer. That bill language quietly wound its way through the tense session to the final bill that determined funding for the 2013-14 school year.

When it went into effect, only two districts saw their financial situation immediately change: Agate, a 12-student district east of Denver, and Pritchett, near the Oklahoma border.

But there were three more districts could have seen their finances improve, if they closed their online schools. That list included Karval, Vilas and Branson, which runs a higher performing online school. Without their online schools, all three would fall below the 50-student line and paradoxically begin receiving more state money per pupil.

Vilas officials did not respond to requests for comment about whether or not they were considering closing the school.

The change was a potential lifeline for Karval, which has been spending more than its annual state budget for years. In 2013, the district spent roughly $100,000 of its savings and was on track to nearly double that this year.

“We had to get to a point where we were going to balance the budget,” said Werner.

Even though the district’s potential lifeline went into effect last May, Werner remained unaware of it until this spring. When he asked the state’s finance office to run projections without the online school last year, the projections did not include the 50-student provision.

“One of those projections should have picked up that [our enrollment] fell below 50 and bumped it up,” said Werner. “It just fell through the system.”

Mary Lynn Christal, the state official in charge of running financial projections for districts, told Chalkbeat that it was possible she didn’t include the 50-student minimum in her projections this spring, although it was in the official school finance formula. But she doesn’t remember speaking with Werner specifically and wasn’t able to find when she added it.

The only other potential source of information for districts, without reading the often-stultifying text of the original bill, is the Colorado Department of Education’s legislative updates. Werner said that provision wasn’t mentioned to him and it isn’t present in the general legislative summary produced by the department. But it is mentioned in the school finance summary, which is available through the department’s website.

But whatever the manner in which the information got lost, Werner said if he had known about the provision earlier, it could have significantly altered the district’s direction.

“If I would have known about the minimum 50, we would have started having those discussions in November or December,” he said. Closing earlier would have meant that the online school’s performance would not have been included in its state ranking this fall, which will determine whether the state intervenes.

Even so, state officials said that that is unlikely to result in sanctions. Peter Sherman, the state’s chief of school improvement, said the district will have an opportunity to request to be ranked without their online school. If they do, he signaled they might receive a positive reception.

“That would be a good reason to request,” said Sherman. And Marcia Neal, Karval’s representative at the state board, where the final decision would be made, said she’d likely “look favorably on such a request.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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