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.

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.