Follow the money

Aurora Public Schools is cutting funding to six schools with special autonomy while it figures out a long-term fix

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

A half-dozen Aurora public schools that operate under arrangements that give them more freedom to innovate are facing a total of $2 million in budget cuts next school year and an uncertain future as district officials reconsider how they are funded.

District officials say they are making the cuts after discovering the six schools combined were mistakenly receiving about $3.5 million extra this year.

To prevent major disruptions to the schools’ programs, district officials say they are pulling the money back over the next two years, starting with the $2 million this fall.

Now the district is planning to convene a task force that will explore whether the schools should be funded any differently from other district schools.

John Youngquist, chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools, said there’s “no question that all the resources allocated were used appropriately.” But, he said, the district wants to make sure the way the schools get their money is clear and predictable.

The task force the Aurora district plans to convene later this year will study the schools and their budgets and might submit recommendations for a new funding process in spring 2018.

“We don’t want to create an inequity,” said Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “That’s not fair to everybody else. But is it right and reasonable to look at them a little bit differently?”

Nichols suggested that perhaps the schools don’t need to get more money to start with, but should be allowed different flexibility with the money they are given.

District officials did not provide clear answers about how the six schools had their budgets allocated in the past and how it differed from other schools.

The district offices that handle budget issues has seen turnover. Aurora’s chief financial officer, Brett Johnson, has been on the job less than two months. Another budget position remains open. It’s clear the problem exists, however, when the allocations are broken down to a per student amount, Johnson said.

According to numbers provided by the district, the schools had about $819 per student more than other schools.

“I don’t know exactly how we got there,” Johnson said. “If you apply the same funding mechanism it’s clearly not at the same level.”

The six schools are unique because of the autonomy their principals have.

Three of them, labeled pilot schools, have a level of freedom created by district and teachers union leaders in 2007. That was year before the state created “innovation status,” a way for schools to get waivers from state rules.

Aurora’s pilot schools had to create a governing board, but could have more say in who they hired, how they scheduled their day or year and what programs they followed.

The three other schools are district-level innovation schools with almost identical autonomy. But to get that autonomy, the schools didn’t have to follow the strict process for pilot schools that was defined in the manual negotiated by the union and the district.

The pilot schools are small schools by design. Contract language for pilot schools said they couldn’t have more than 600 students.

Two of the six schools have an expeditionary learning model, which relies on projects and field work to help students learn through real-life applications. Another uses a program that teaches students leadership skills. Five of the six schools are high-performing schools. Two are among Aurora’s top 10 schools based on state performance ratings.

But Aurora officials say the contracts that outlined the flexibilities for the schools “do not align” with how the schools were funded. The pilot school manual doesn’t outline a funding process for the schools. However, it states they are “expected to be cost neutral” for the district and “should receive the same funding as other comparable schools.”

Aurora officials denied multiple requests to speak to the principals about how their schools were funded and how they would handle the budget cuts.

Youngquist said the changes required under these budget cuts would be minimal, but could not provide any specifics.

Some of the schools face additional budget cuts because of enrollment declines, but those apply to all district schools that are seeing those drops.

When the path for school-level autonomy was created in the district, the groups set a goal of having eight pilot schools by 2017. But the long process established for becoming a pilot school is not always necessary anymore for small flexibilities such as changing a school calendar. For struggling schools, the district is pushing them to get much more flexibility, especially around hiring and firing teachers, through state-level innovation status.

“I believe the district is much more enamoured with innovation schools than they are with our pilot school language,” Nichols said. “They don’t believe that the state board would approve a turnaround process that involves a pilot school.”

Last year the district created a zone — a group of struggling schools getting state-level innovation status. The district also chose the state-level innovation path for Aurora Central High School, the one school that was facing state sanctions for consistent low-performance, although state data has not shown that school flexibilities necessarily lead to higher performance.

But the group the school district convenes later this year may have to consider if the extra funding helped lead Aurora’s pilot schools to higher performance. Then they will have to consider how to fund the schools at the same level as all other schools, without disrupting the good performance. Principals will participate in the process.

“It’s one of the reasons we are being very thoughtful,” Youngquist said.

List of schools impacted

  • Fulton Academy of Excellence
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary
  • William Smith High School
  • Tollgate Elementary
  • Vista Peak Exploratory
  • Vista Peak Preparatory

money talks

As battle over education funding divides Democrats, New York City mayor adds $125M to city’s schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

New York City schools are about to get a $125 million boost, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday.

The new money means that all city schools will soon receive at least 90 percent of the money they are supposed to get under the city’s funding formula. The change will allow 854 schools to spend more on things like literacy specialists, tutoring, supplies, and technology, de Blasio said.

Despite the extra cash, many schools will still not reach the level the city considers fully funded. Principals have said in the past that until the city reaches its goal, the neediest schools will struggle to afford crucial services, such as additional academic programs or after-school classes.

“We are fighting against a problem that, bluntly, has been here for decades, even generations,” de Blasio said, flanked by City Council leaders and advocates at City Hall. “But in this generation, we’re going to fix the problem.”

De Blasio’s announcement — the first to include new Chancellor Richard Carranza — reflects the mayor’s vow to pour more resources into education. It also injects the mayor into one of the most divisive issues in New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary: whether the state is adequately funding schools. De Blasio’s ally, Cynthia Nixon, is pushing for more money, while his adversary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, argues that the state is helping schools enough.

The city adopted its funding formula, or “Fair Student Funding,” in 2007 as a way to send more money to high-needs schools. Instead of divvying up money based on teacher salaries, the new formula gave schools extra money based on their students’ needs: Students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or just learning English bring their schools additional dollars. The formula also provides extra money to some selective schools in the city on the grounds that their students might require additional resources as well.

But the funding formula has run into a crucial problem: City officials never allocated the total amount of money that they planned to a decade ago. The city blames the state for failing to fully fund schools according to the terms of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that was settled in 2006. Advocates — including Nixon — have sustained attention to the settlement’s requirements for more than a decade.

At a press conference, de Blasio repeatedly blasted state officials for not fully funding schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and took a swipe at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion that school budgeting needs more transparency as opposed to more money.

“The city puts more and more in education and the state puts less and less in,” de Blasio said. “Of course you need more money to educate better.”

Advocates for additional school funding quickly heralded the city’s news — and criticized Cuomo.

“Unlike Governor Cuomo who has consistently blocked Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding, the mayor understands that money matters when it comes to addressing inequity in schools,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which formed to advance the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Nixon is a longtime spokesperson for the group.

Carranza said he plans to continue lobbying Cuomo to increase funding for city schools. “While New York City is not waiting, we cannot do it alone,” he said. “And I look forward to being in Albany next week where I will meet with our state elected officials and I will make that case directly.”

Though schools still lag behind their funding goal, de Blasio has added more money to the system since taking office. At the beginning of his term, schools could see as little as 81 percent of what the funding formula said they should receive. That number has risen to 87 percent since 2014 and will now jump to 90 percent.

School funding in the city has remained uneven. For instance, New Design High School, which serves many needy students, got only 92 percent of what the funding formula said it should receive last year. The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population, got 112 percent of what the funding formula prescribed.

Asked about whether the city would reduce these types of inequities, de Blasio said the city did not plan to reduce school funding to promote equity.

“We have not said let’s take schools that are doing a good job and take resources away from them,” de Blasio said. “We’re in striking range — just a few years away from achieving full equity where every school is at 100 percent.”

Some schools have found other ways to supplement their funding levels. Parents in wealthier neighborhoods often raise funds to help their schools. Also, de Blasio has already committed to fully funding some of the city’s struggling schools, those in his flagship “Renewal” program. But for the rest of the city’s schools, the extra money could be crucial.

Christina Veiga contributed to this report

strike that

This Colorado bill would ban teacher strikes and hit violators with fines and jail time

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Two Republican lawmakers who have long helped shape education policy in Colorado have introduced a bill that would bar teachers from striking and strip unions that endorse strikes of their bargaining power.

This bill stands practically no chance of becoming law. House Democrats already killed a bill this legislative session that would have prohibited any union activity by public employees during work hours, and this measure goes much further in limiting the rights of workers.

However, that it was introduced at all speaks to growing concern that the wave of teacher activism that has hit other states could come to Colorado. Last Monday, several hundred teachers marched at the state Capitol for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, are expected for more marches this Thursday and Friday.

Earlier this year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association threatened to strike before backing off and continuing negotiations over that district’s pay-for-performance system. And Pueblo teachers voted to strike this month after the school board there voted down pay raises.

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According to numerous reports, Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states for both education funding and teacher salaries, though there is considerable variation around the state.

The reaction at the Capitol to teacher activism has fallen largely on party lines, with House Democrats joining teachers in calling for more school funding, and Republicans expressing frustration because this year’s budget already includes an increase for K-12 education. Republicans want to secure more funding for transportation projects, and lawmakers are also arguing over the final form of a proposed overhaul to the public employees retirement system.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and state Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument would prohibit teachers and teachers unions from “directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating” in a strike. It also would prohibit public school employers from “consenting to or condoning” a teacher strike.

The bill authorizes public school employers to go to court and get an injunction against a teacher strike.

Teachers who violate such an injunction could be fined up to $500 a day and be jailed for up to six months. They would also face immediate termination with no right to a hearing.

Local teachers unions found in contempt could face fines of up to $10,000 a day. More significantly, they would see their collective bargaining agreements rendered null and void and would be barred from representing teachers for a year or collecting dues during that time. School districts would be barred from negotiating with sanctioned unions as well.

Courts would have the ability to reduce these penalties if employers request it or if they feel it is in the public interest to do so.

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado and already face certain restrictions. For example, the Pueblo union has informed state regulators of their intent to strike, and the state Department of Labor and Employment can intervene to try to broker an agreement. Those discussions can go on for as long as 180 days before teachers can walk off the job.

The last time Denver teachers went on strike was 1994. A state judge refused to order teachers back to work because they had gone through the required process with state regulators. Teachers had the right, he ruled, to reject the proposed contract. That strike lasted a week before teachers returned to work with a new contract.