Who Is In Charge

Curtain rises on historic Lobato trial

Is the system Colorado uses to pay for its schools constitutional?

That short but infinitely complex question is the focus of a five-week trial in the case of Lobato v. State, which opens Monday before Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe outcome of the trial could have far-reaching but hard-to-predict impacts on school districts, classrooms, the state budget and the taxes that Colorado citizens and businesses pay.

Studies done for the plaintiffs estimate that “full funding” of Colorado schools could cost $2 to $4 billion more a year than the state spends now. Such increases would wreck the state budget and decimate other programs say Gov. John Hickenlooper, a defendant, and Attorney General John Suthers, who’s leading the state’s defense.

(If the plaintiffs win, the trial isn’t expected to end with an order that the state spend a specific amount on education. Rather, the plaintiffs are asking the judge to find the current finance system unconstitutional and tell the legislature to come up with a new one.)

The case “really goes to the heart of what we want from out education system today,” said Kelly Hupfeld, associate dean of the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, and an education policy expert.

The plaintiffs “are saying if you want standards-based education … then you have to fund it accordingly. What the state is saying is there’s no requirement to fund at a particular level. They’re also saying there’s not much evidence that when you spend more on education you get better results.”

The case will provide a forum for expert views on that issue of spending and results, one of the most contentious in education.

Two of the top expert witnesses are well-known national figures, Linda Darling-Hammond for the plaintiffs and Eric Hanushek for the defendants.

“In the education reform world this is like an all-star lineup,” Hupfeld said. “This is going to be pretty monumental.”

However Rappaport rules sometime after the trial ends, that decision won’t be the end of the story.

“It will come back to the Colorado Supreme Court” no matter who wins at trial, Suthers said.

Given the state constitutional requirement that voters approve tax increases, ultimately “the voters may need to decide how much they prioritize education,” said Hupfeld.

Education News Colorado will provide extensive coverage of the trial. To get readers up to speed, here’s a primer on the issues, the players and other details about the case.

Issues: What’s at stake

Lobato is a lawsuit about “adequacy,” or whether the state’s school finance system is adequate and is appropriately designed to support the kind of education required in the state constitution, which mandates a “the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”

The large group of plaintiffs who brought the suit (see below) argues that the current finance system is underfunded and allocates money in an “irrational and arbitrary” way that violates the “thorough and uniform” standard.

Further, they claim the system doesn’t provide constitutionally adequate education to disabled, poor and minority students or to English language learners and doesn’t provide enough funding to meet state requirements for instruction and student achievement. Plaintiffs also claim the current system violates constitutionally guaranteed local control of schools because it doesn’t give school districts enough money to fully exercise that control.

The Colorado Supreme Court framed the Lobato issues in an Oct. 19, 2009, ruling that directed the case be heard in district court.

“To be successful, they [plaintiffs] must prove that the state’s current public school financing system is not rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education. … The trial court must give substantial deference to the legislature’s fiscal and policy judgments. It may appropriately rely on the legislature’s own pronouncements concerning the meaning of a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of education. If the trial court finds the current system of public finance irrational and thus unconstitutional, then that court must permit the legislature a reasonable period of time to change the funding system so as to bring the system in compliance with the Colorado Constitution.”

District Judge Sheila Rappaport
District Judge Sheila Rappaport

Above the lawsuit loom the larger policy and political issues of whether courts can tell the legislature what to do, and whether education spending should be considered in the larger context of other state programs and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, two other constitutional provisions that put limits on state and local revenues (TABOR) and on local property taxes (Gallagher).

But those issues won’t be decided formally in Courtroom 424 of the Denver City and County Building.

The supreme court said in its 2009 ruling that the courts do have the power to consider the issues raised by the Lobato plaintiffs.

And Rappaport, in a ruling issued July 14, concluded that TABOR, Gallagher and the legislative need to balance competing spending needs are not legal issues to be considered in this case. (Read the ruling.)

Those issues won’t go away after the trial and undoubtedly will loom large in any future legislative debates. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Suthers, speaking with reporters before the trial started, repeatedly emphasized their belief that the state can’t afford to spend a lot more on schools and that school finance ultimately is a legislative and voter decision.

People: A big cast of characters

The plaintiffs include 26 parents (representing 40 children) from across the state, plus 21 school districts. Many of the districts are small, rural ones in the impoverished San Luis Valley, but Aurora, Colorado Springs District 11, Jefferson County and Pueblo City also are among the group.

A second group of plaintiffs, nine parents of 21 children in four school districts, are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and entered the case in 2010 as “intervenors.” MALDEF’s case focuses on the impact of current funding on poor and minority children and on English language learners. It also is targeting problems with low funding for school construction and renovation.

Some 100 school boards have passed resolutions supporting the lawsuit. Roughly half of the state’s 178 districts have contributed money to the cause, according to Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

A notable exception is the conservative Douglas County board, which has passed two resolutions opposing the lawsuit (read second resolution).

Various stages of the case have drawn formal involvement by other groups. Before the supreme court ruled that the case should go to trial, CASB, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and Padres Unidos all filed briefs with the court.

The formal defendants in the case are the State Board of Education, education Commissioner Robert Hammond and Hickenlooper.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

The lead lawyers for the plaintiffs are Kathleen Gebhardt and Alexander Halpern of the non-profit Boulder firm Children’s Voices, which focuses on educational issues. Former U.S. Attorney Henry Solano is representing the MALDEF plaintiffs.

On the plaintiffs’ side the case involves 22 lawyers, many from such heavyweight Denver firms as Davis Graham & Stubbs, Reilly Pozner, Faegre & Benson, Greenberg Traurig, Holland & Hart and Holme Roberts & Owen. Most of the lawyers are serving without fee, and Children’s Voices and school boards have raised about $500,000 to cover other court costs.

On the other side, the state has seven lawyers on the case, including Suthers and Senior Assistant Attorney General Antony Dyl, who in the past has advised the state board on legal issues. Suthers estimates the case will cost the state $2-$3 million, not including salaries.

Judge Rappaport was appointed to the bench in 2000 by Republican Gov. Bill Owens after a 22-year career as prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney’s office, specializing in domestic violence cases. Voters retained her office in 2002 and 2008. In the required survey before her 2008 re-election, 77 percent of lawyers responding recommended she be retained in office, and 97 percent of non-lawyers recommended retention. (See full retention survey report.)

Docket: What to expect in court

The trial will be a battle of experts testifying about their views and research on school funding, the amount of money needed to implement reform laws and the degree to which financial support affects academic achievement.

The plaintiffs’ listed expert witnesses include Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who has a high national profile on education issues. (See her report, filed with the court ahead of the trial.)

Two other out-of-state experts listed as plaintiffs’ witnesses are Bruce Baker and W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University, who’ve done extensive research on school finance and adequacy.

Linda Darling-Hammond
Linda Darling-Hammond

Another key witness is expected to be Justin Silverstein of the Denver consulting and research firm of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, which has lengthy experience in school finance.

The state’s top expert witness is Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution (which is affiliated with Stanford), a leading expert on the economics of education. (See pretrial preview of his testimony.)

The lists of possible witnesses filed by the parties are a who’s who of Colorado education, including superintendents, academics, former legislators and state officials. Here’s a sampling:

  • Plaintiffs: Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and former Cherry Creek Superintendent Monte Moses.
  • Plaintiff-intervenors: Several superintendents, including Mapleton’s Charlotte Ciancio and Greeley’s Ranelle Lange.
  • Defendants: Former education Commissioner William Moloney, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, retired state school finance chief Vody Herrmann, past and present state budget chiefs Todd Saliman and Henry Sobanet, former Manual High School Principal Rob Stein and a host of CDE officials.

(Parties are required to disclose potential witnesses before trial starts, but that doesn’t mean all listed witnesses will be called to the stand.)

Eric Hanushek
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Eric Hanushek

The case has generated a blizzard of paperwork (electronic documents in this day and age) ahead of the trial. Depositions (formal interviews by lawyers) were taken from more than 160 people. (Find links to documents on the Children’s Voices and attorney general’s websites.)

The plaintiffs are expected to take two and half weeks to present their case and the intervenors and the state a week each, according to plaintiffs’ lawyer Gebhardt.

The parties outline their cases in the trial briefs linked at the right.

History: The case

The Lobato case has been floating around the Colorado courts since the first version of the suit was filed June 23, 2005.

On March 2, 2006, Denver District Judge Michael Martinez dismissed the case, ruling the current school finance system meets the requirements of Amendment 23, isn’t subject to court review and that the school districts didn’t have standing to sue. Martinez made his decision on legal grounds and didn’t hear any factual evidence.

That decision was appealed, and on Jan. 24, 2008, a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld Martinez’ decision, ruling that while the parents had standing to sue, school districts did not and that there was no claim because school finance is the responsibility of the legislature.

Del Norte Middle School
The Del Norte School District is one of the original plaintiffs in the Lobato case.

That second ruling also was appealed, and the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling revived the case, concluding the plaintiffs have standing to sue, school districts can be part of the case and that the issue can legally be considered by the courts.

Citing an earlier school finance case, the high court’s 4-3 majority concluded, “We interpret Lujan v. Colorado State Board of Education, 649 P.2d 1005 (Colo. 1982), as recognizing the authority of the judiciary to review whether the current funding system is constitutional.” (The Court of Appeals had relied on a federal court precedent to toss the case out, but the supreme court disagreed with that.)

History: Other Colorado lawsuits

Two other major education-funding cases have been decided in the Colorado courts over the last three decades.

The case of Lujan v. State Board of Education challenged the equity of school funding and made it all the way to the supreme court, which upheld the school finance system, concluding that the state constitution doesn’t require absolute equality in school spending or services.

But the case did establish, at least in the minds of current supreme court justices, the validity of court review over education spending.

In 2000, the case of Giardino v. State Board was settled with the state agreeing to pay $190 million over 10 years for school construction costs. That settlement later was folded into the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program created by the legislature in 2008.

History: School finance

Colorado school districts spent about $10.2 billion for all expenses in 2009-10, the most recent year for which the state Department of Education has data. Instructional costs totaled $4.4 billion.

Schools get money from a variety of sources, many of them earmarked, such as state funds for transportation costs, property taxes to pay off bonds and federal funds for special education students and high-poverty schools.

In Colorado, the most closely watched budget item is what’s called total program funding, the combination of state and local funds used to pay staff, operate buildings and support other basic operations. Total program funding is about $5.2 billion in 2011-12.

Under the school finance formula created in 1994, the legislature each year sets a base amount of per-pupil funding. Additional factors such as district size, staff cost of living and numbers of at-risk students are considered to come up with customized per-pupil amounts for each district. Districts receive varying percentages of state aid based on the amount of local revenues. Overall, the state contributes nearly 65 percent of total program funding.

Education revenues are affected by the complicated interplay of several constitutional provisions:

  • The Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, which governs property taxes.
  • The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, passed in 1992, which sets limits on annual increases in state and local revenues and requires voter approval for tax increases.
  • Amendment 23, passed in 2000, which sets a formula for annual increases in school spending. (The interpretation of A23 has been substantially narrowed by the legislature.)
  • Referendum C, passed in 2006, which amends TABOR, particularly in regard to how government revenues can recover after economic downturns.

Context: What’s happening around the nation

Debate over adequacy has intensified nationwide in recent years as pressures on school budgets have increased at the same time that schools have been required to do a better job of educating at-risk and special education students, raising test scores, transforming their operations, graduating more high school seniors and sending more students to college.

Lawsuits involving some aspect of school funding have been brought in 45 states. Starting in the 1970s suits focused on equity – disparities in spending between individual districts in a state. In recent years the focus has turned to adequacy – whether schools receive enough money to produce the results expected of them.

Thirteen funding cases currently are in process across the nation, according to the National Access Network, an organization at Columbia University that tracks the issue.

Attorney General John Suthers
Attorney General John Suthers

Of cases decided so far, 22 have been in favor of plaintiffs and 11 for states, according to the group. (See lists of current litigation, dispositions of adequacy cases and dispositions of both equity and adequacy cases.)

Education Justice, a group affiliated with the Education Law Center at Rutgers University, also tracks adequacy suits around the country. The center has helped plaintiffs in a long-running adequacy lawsuit in New Jersey.

Despite plaintiffs’ success around the country, Suthers remains skeptical that such suits affect education quality. Noting that such cases are “a 10- to 15-year process” in some states, he believes, “Litigation has shown this is not the way to resolve educational problems.”

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”