Who Is In Charge

School funding headed for collapse?

Colorado’s school funding system could hit a constitutional dead end in less than five years, a veteran analyst told the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday.

Photo illustration of piggy bankA discussion of the tough prospects facing school funding was the centerpiece of Carolyn Kampman’s briefing to the committee on the proposed K-12 budget for the 2012-13 school year. She also updated the committee – and more than a dozen other lawmakers who sat in – on funding for online students and the status of the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit.

Every fall committee staff analysts such as Kampman brief the panel on each state agency, reviewing current spending, policy issues and making initial spending recommendations for the upcoming budget year.

Wednesday’s K-12 funding briefing departed from the usual script in taking a longer-term view of the dilemma facing the state.

Kampman walked lawmakers through an explanation of the two constitutional requirements that drive school funding:

• Amendment 23 requires that base per-pupil funding increase annually by the rate of inflation.

• State school finance law, which is designed to implement the constitution’s “thorough and uniform” education requirement, allocates different per-pupil amounts to individual districts based on what are called the “factors.” The primary factors are cost of living for staff, district size and the percentage of at-risk students. The system is intended to provide a “thorough and uniform” education to students in districts where it may be more expensive to educate students than it is elsewhere.

The legislature, faced two years ago with having to balance the state budget while revenues were dropping, introduced a new element called the “negative factor” into the equation. It’s used to reduce the total amount determined by Amendment 23 and the other factors to a dollar amount for school funding needed to balance the state budget.

School funding chart
Starred line shows projected increase in per pupil base funding. Black portion indicates flat K- funding. Green area shows impact of fulling funding enrollment growth. Red area shows cost of fully covering inflation increases, White area shows cost of funding to full Amendment 23 levels. CLICK TO ENLARGE

What Kampman basically told lawmakers was that Amendment 23, school finance law and the negative factor are on a collision course that will make the whole system unconstitutional by 2015-16.

“If total program funding remains flat, the portion devoted to base per pupil funding will continue to crowd out the portion available to differentiate districts’ per pupil funding amounts. Absent a funding increase, there would be no funding available for differentiation by FY 2015-16 and funding would be insufficient to increase base per pupil funding as required by Amendment 23,” Kampman wrote in her briefing paper. (She used “differentiation” to refer to the factors.)

The briefing paper said that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2012-13 cut of $88 million to current school funding of $5.2 billion would reduce the amount of money available for the factors to 7.5 percent of total spending. Kampman said that would accelerate the trend she’s warning about.

She recommended that the JBC work with legislative leaders, the House and Senate education committees and the governor’s office to discuss a school funding amount for 2012-13. Also recommended was discussion of whether new laws, constitutional changes and/or additional funding are needed “to ensure that the General Assembly can continue to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide for the maintenance of a thorough and uniform public school system,” in the words of the briefing paper.

School finance snapshots
  • Current total program funding – $5.2 billion
  • Average per-pupil funding – $6,468
  • Funded enrollment – 805,891
  • Governor’s proposed 2012-13 cut – 1.7 percent
  • Cut in per-pupil funding – $162
  • Historic school funding high was $5.6 million in 2009-10 for 789,497 students

“I think this is one of the most important issues we’re going to be dealing with,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. She said she’d work to set up a meeting of the JBC and the two education committees as early as possible in the 2012 legislative session, which kicks off Jan. 11. The two committee chairs, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, sat through Wednesday’s briefing.

Gerou, noting other pressures on the state budget like steeply rising Medicaid costs, quipped, “This is why I wake up at night screaming.”

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and a JBC member, said K-12 and Medicaid funding make it “conceivable that we could not fund higher education at all.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and also a committee member, commented, “We just keep digging a deeper hole in the school finance act.”

Funding for online schools

The briefing paper also included a section about online schools, an issue of increasing concern and a problem examined in a recent investigation by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network (read stories here).

The Legislative Audit Committee recently deadlocked on a request by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, for a state audit of online schools (see story).

Kampman recommended lawmakers take a look at online education because of budgetary implications. Her briefing paper noted “existing systems for funding students and holding school districts accountable have proven to be an awkward fit as on-line learning has developed and expanded in Colorado.”

Briefing paper
  • Discussion of school finance dilemma starts on page 15
  • Online education section begins on page 33

Her recommendation is that “the General Assembly continues to evaluate whether the existing framework for funding and evaluating on-line programs can and should be improved. Staff recommends further study and consideration of policy issues related to per-pupil funding levels and counting methods for on-line programs, limiting the amount of per-pupil funding that may be retained by an authorizer, and ensuring that financial reporting requirements are consistent and transparent.”

Among the key questions around online programs are high attrition rates rates of students and lagging achievement levels.

Some of the lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing raised questions about the real meaning of attrition rates, suggesting deeper analysis of that problem is needed.

What’s next

The JBC will be briefed Dec. 1 on other parts of CDE’s budget, including the department’s request for $25.9 million in startup funds for a new testing system. Hickenlooper has recommended that money not be included in the 2012-13 budget, but CDE hopes to persuade lawmakers otherwise.

Department executives will have a chance at a Dec. 16 hearing to make their spending case and to answer questions raised at the two briefings.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.