money matters

Colorado, a closer look at how your school spends tax dollars is coming Friday

Coloradans will have a chance to better understand how the state’s public schools are spending tax dollars Friday when the state education department launches a new website that tracks annual financial data.

Commissioned by state lawmakers in 2014, the website reports how much money each school and district collects from federal, state and local taxes, and donations — including those given to charter schools.

The website also charts how each school spends the money on a long list of categories such as personnel, technology and food programs.

The site is the latest development in a multi-year effort to better explain Colorado’s complex school funding system and how schools use their tax dollars. Schools and districts have been required to publish budgets, credit card statements and check registers since 2010.

The new financial details and website put Colorado ahead of most states in school financial reporting.

All states will soon be required to submit school-level financial data to the federal government. The new and rarely discussed mandate is part of the nation’s education laws, which were updated in 2015 with the Every Student Succeed Act.

The financial data in Colorado — and soon across the nation — is a boon for civil rights and education activists who have long argued that poor communities are being short changed by wealthier white communities that have political clout.

“This level of information will show us how school boards divide up their mega budgets,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance policies. “And if it’s not equitable, then schools should be engaged in knowing that and speaking up on their behalf.”

Colorado is one of a few states that allocates more money for students with greater learning needs. However, inequities still exist in the state’s funding system.

Part of the inequity stems from mill levy overrides. Those are local voter-approved tax increases that wealthier school districts such as Cherry Creek and Boulder have little trouble passing.

But voters in school districts such as Greeley and Pueblo, which both serve large populations of poor students, have never approved such an increase.

One shortcoming of the site, Roza said, is the dearth of academic data.

Student data “should be paired with spending,” she said. “You can’t look at outcomes in the absence of costs and you can’t look at costs in the absence of outcomes.”

The legislation that established the new website did not call for academic data to be part of the website. State education department officials said they expect the website to continue to evolve after it becomes public.

One aspect of the site that could prove popular is a feature that allows side-by-side comparisons of how schools and districts spend their money. That worries some who work in education, however.

“It’s fun to do the comparisons,” said Diane Doney, chief financial officer for Littleton Public Schools, which helped the state test the website. “But I really think there is a danger when you start comparing raw numbers and try to make some sort of conclusion about what you’re seeing.”

Doney stressed caution in making comparisons for two reasons.

First, the website does not include student demographic information or other reasons why one school district might receive more money on a per student basis. Small rural school districts, for example, often receive twice the amount of money per student from the state that a large urban district receives.

Second, schools and districts allocate money in different ways. One school district might budget all of its reading coaches at the district level, while a nearby district might allocate that cost at the school level, Doney said.

Users of the website should call their school leader or district finance department if they have questions the website can’t answer, she said.

The website launches about three weeks before a group of lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating how the state should update its school funding system. Part of the conversation is expected to be whether Colorado is spending enough on its schools, or whether schools need to spend tax dollars differently.

Meanwhile, another coalition advocating for more money for schools is working on a potential 2018 ballot initiative.

“I do think the website will start the conversation that will be healthy for parents and constituents,” said Jennifer Okes, executive director of school finance at the Colorado Department of Education. “For the most part, schools are making really good use of their limited resources. This will show where they really are investing their dollars.”

On Friday, the site will contain financial information from the 2015-2016 school year. The site will be updated each year before July 1 with the preceding school year’s finances.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



School Finance

Key lawmakers urge IPS to lease Broad Ripple high school to charter school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Several Indiana lawmakers, including two influential state representatives, are calling on Indianapolis Public Schools leaders to sell the Broad Ripple High School campus to Purdue Polytechnic High School.

In a letter to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board sent Tuesday, nine lawmakers urged the district to quickly accept a verbal offer from Purdue Polytechnic to lease the building for up to $8 million.

The letter is the latest volley in a sustained campaign from Broad Ripple residents and local leaders to pressure the district to lease or sell the desirable building to a charter school. The district is instead considering steps that could eventually allow them sell the large property on the open market.

But lawmakers said the offer from Purdue Polytechnic is more lucrative and indicated they wouldn’t support allowing the district to sell the property to other buyers.

The letter from lawmakers described selling the property to Purdue Polytechnic as a “unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity while adhering to the letter and spirit of state law.”

It’s an important development because it was signed by House Speaker Brian Bosma and chairman of the House Education Committee Bob Behning, two elected officials whose support would be essential to changing a law that requires the district to first offer the building to charter schools for $1. Both are Republicans from Indianapolis.

Last year, the district lobbied for the law to be modified, and Behning initially included language in a bill to do so. When charter schools, including Purdue Polytechnic, expressed interest in the building, he withdrew the proposal.

The district announced last month that it planned to use the Broad Ripple building for operations over the next year, which will allow it to avoid placing the building on the unused property registry that would eventually make it available to charter operators.

The plan to continue using the building inspired pointed criticism from lawmakers, who described the move in the letter as an excuse not to lease the property to a charter school. Lawmakers hinted that the plan will not help win support for changing the law.

“It certainly would not be a good faith start to any effort to persuade the General Assembly to reconsider the charter facility law,” the letter said.

The legislature goes back in session in January.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board said in the statement that they appreciate the interest from lawmakers in the future of the building.

“We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence,” the statement continued. “We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”

Indianapolis Public Schools is currently gathering community perspectives on reusing the property and analyzing the market. The district is also planning an open process for soliciting proposals and bids for the property. The district’s proposal would stretch the sale process over about 15 months, culminating in a decision in September 2019. Purdue Polytechnic plans to open a second campus in fall 2019, and leaders are looking to nail down a location.