Who Is In Charge

Tempered good news on K-12 funding

Updated 4 p.m. – Improved state revenue forecasts have provided a nice present for Colorado school districts, but the gift isn’t as large as some might hope.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Henry Sobanet
Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and budget director Henry Sobanet

State budget chief Henry Sobanet told legislators Tuesday morning that the brightened revenue outlook would allow giving schools an extra $22 million this year for enrollment increases and eliminate the need for an $89 million cut in 2012-13, something Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed in his original budget for next year.

“Today is a good day to talk about the budget … the economy is improving,” Hickenlooper told reporters later in the day. “First and most critically,” he said, the additional revenue allowed the administration to roll back proposed K-12 cuts.

But holding school total program funding steady at about $5.2 billion effectively would be a cut, because statewide enrollment is expected to increase 1.2 percent in 2012-13, meaning average per-pupil funding would drop by about $70 a student. Under the governor’s original plan for 2012-13, the average per-pupil cut would have been $179. Actual per-student funding varies widely by district under the state’s school finance system.

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Gov. Hickenlooper’s comments on state revenues, education spending and Colorado’s economy.

And funding would be about $1 billion below the full amount called for by the previous interpretation of Amendment 23, the school-funding provision of the state constitution. In recent years, the legislature has used a “negative factor” to reduce projected school funding to a predetermined amount necessary to balance the state budget.

One proposed cut the administration is not planning to fully restore is what’s called the senior homestead property tax exemption. Hickenlooper is proposing the current suspension of that $100 million program continue in 2012-13 but that $17.5 million be budgeted to help low-income seniors.

House Republican leaders have said they’ll fight to restore the $100 million. Doing so could force K-12 cuts in exchange.

Forecasts seen as good news

Still the forecasts were greeted as welcome developments.

“Thanks for the good news,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, after legislative and executive branch economists finished their presentations.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, told EdNews the forecast means, “We’re going to push very hard” to reduce K-12 cuts in 2012-13. Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, led efforts to minimize school cuts in the current budget and is expected to be a central figure on education issues during the 2012 session.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “This is good news for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the governor’s willingness to retract the $89 million is good news.” Still, noting the precariousness of school funding, Urschel said, “We’re just living fiscal year to fiscal year, and that’s no way to fund schools.”

“Our students and schools so desperately needed a good-news day, and this is good news,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Do your homework

In addition to discussing state revenues, both documents contain extensive information about Colorado economic and business trends.

Sobanet told legislators at the morning hearing that state revenues for the current 2011-12 year are projected to be $231 million higher than was predicted in September. Natalie Mullis, legislative chief economist, said her office estimates revenues will be $148 million more than projected in her last quarterly forecast. Both projected state revenue growth will slow in the immediate future.

“Obviously, this change is most welcome,” said Sobanet, who’s director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“The economy has definitely stabilized,” Mullis said. But she and executive branch economists warned that economic instability in Europe could cloud Colorado and U.S. economic prospects in the future.

The forecasts mean lawmakers will have a modestly larger amount to spend in 2012-13 than previously thought.

Sobanet said the administration would recommend the following steps related to education:

  • Allocation of an additional $22 million in the current 2011-12 budget year to help districts cover the costs of increased enrollment.
  • Transfer of an additional $110 million to the chronically underfunded State Education Fund, which is used to supplement school spending.
  • Keeping total program funding, the combination of state and local money that funds basic school operations, near the current level of about $5.2 billion. Hickenlooper had proposed cutting $89 million.

Sobanet also said higher revenues mean it will be possible to avoid a $30 million cut in the state’s $100 million student financial aid program. An additional $30 million cut in direct support of colleges and universities remains in the governor’s plan.

The legislature, of course, will have the final say on the 2012-13 budget. But if lawmakers take the administration’s suggestions, it would be the first time in several years that school districts would get a mid-year adjustment for enrollment increases and that base school funding remained stable.

The two forecasts also touched on other issues and trends of interest to education, including:

  • Local property taxes: School districts will see a 1.5 percent increase in property tax revenues, slightly reducing the pressure on the state to backfill local revenues.
  • Enrollment: Full-time equivalent enrollment will grow 1.2 percent in 2012-13 to nearly 795,000. Most of the growth will come in Front Range districts; many other areas of the state will see continued declines. The forecast from legislative staff contains a detailed analysis of where enrollment will grow and where it will fall.
  • Gaming revenues: Community colleges are expected to receive $6.1 million this year from their share of gambling revenue and $6.2 million in 2012-13.

The recent Denver District Court ruling in the Lobato v. State school funding case was referenced briefly during the hearing.

Sobanet said, “The governor is in consultation with the attorney general about the appropriate path forward. The most likely outcome is the state will appeal the district court ruling.”

Estimates of “full” K-12 funding under the Lobato ruling range from $2 to $4 billion more a year than the $5.2 billion currently spent.

Asked about the issue at his news conference, Hickenlooper said, “We’re just working out the details” and that an announcement on the appeal will come “hopefully in the near future.”

New Leadership

Coaching will be key as Griffin adds two from Memphis iZone to state district team

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin greets Alethea Henry (right) at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

After more than 20 years in traditional Memphis schools, Alethea Henry is making the leap to the state’s controversial turnaround district and will bring with her lessons learned from Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone.

But Henry is clear that her switch in allegiance is mostly to follow the iZone’s former leader and new Achievement School District chief – Sharon Griffin. Shelby County Schools iZone is a group of 24 low-performing schools within Memphis’ traditional district that won praise for improving student test scores under Griffin.

“I decided to join the ASD…primarily because of the opportunity to serve under the awesome leadership and tutelage of Dr. Sharon Griffin,” said Henry, who is now in charge of support teams for the state district. “My tenure in the iZone afforded me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Fortunately, I have been able to apply those lessons learned in my new role with ASD.”

ASD leadership team and salaries

  • Sharon Griffin, ASD chief, $180,000
  • Tonye Smith McBride, chief of school improvement/accountability, $125,004
  • Lisa Settle, chief of operations and culture/climate, $114,996
  • Robert White, chief of communications/external affairs, $114,996
  • Alethea Henry, lead instructional support director, $105,000

Tonye Smith McBride is also joining the state district’s leadership team after decades in Memphis’ traditional district. McBride and Henry coached iZone principals and educators alongside Griffin. Appointing two people with experience coaching administrators offers a clue to Griffin’s strategy of working with teachers and principals to improve student performance.

Schools in the iZone have outpaced progress of those run by the state, which have struggled to show academic improvement. The Achievement School District – now comprising 30 schools, most of them in Memphis – was launched in 2012 to transform the state’s worst performing schools by converting them to charter schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Griffin have said that the state district needs more consistency from school to school, and McBride will lead the charge to share best practices across charter operators.

“As part of the iZone, I served as a principal, instructional leadership director and eventually director of school improvement and accountability for the entirety of SCS,” McBride said. “When you combine all of these together, the work is very much the same…just lots more of it.”

McBride said her new role will focus on ensuring charter operators are following federal and state laws. Similar to her previous roles in Shelby County, McBride will oversee the district’s Special Education team, support career and technical education, and create system-wide “practices to meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

McBride coached dozens of iZone principals – including the principal of Trezevant High School, a school within the iZone where reports of improper grade changing launched an ongoing investigation within Shelby County high schools. McBride was not implicated in grade changing and a team of outside investigators found no evidence that she was involved in any other wrongdoing.

Griffin told Chalkbeat she’s confident McBride is up for the steep challenge of improving state-run schools. Recent test scores remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school.

“When she was a principal, Chief McBride knew how to take a school from a low-performing school to the next phase,” Griffin said.

For Henry, some of her lessons learned include establishing deep support for teachers, something Griffin said educators within the state district have told her was lacking. Henry will focus on improving teacher training and is in charge of creating a strategic plan for “addressing instructional needs across the entire ASD portfolio,” she said.

“Just like every child is different, so are teachers and schools,” Henry said. “Support must be intentional and meet the unique needs of the people being supported. It is no one’s job to ‘fix’ teachers.”

The remaining team members, Robert White and Lisa Settle, have been in state-run leadership for years, and Griffin said she was excited for the context and experience they will bring.

White will continue to work on bettering the district’s historically stormy relationship with its communities – and will focus on telling the district’s story of a new era under Griffin’s leadership.

Settle has been with the turnaround district since the beginning. She moved from the position of chief performance officer, where she made sure charter operators followed federal and state rules, to the chief of operations and culture/climate. Griffin said Settle will now oversee the district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools and focus on building maintenance. Many of the achievement district’s school buildings are leased from Shelby County Schools and need repair.

“I’m still with the district because we aren’t finished – there’s work still to do,” Settle said. “One thing that is changing now is the way we view support needed. We were an authorizer of charter schools, and we still are, but there are traditional district functions we need to provide like a focus on academics, and support around building maintenance.”

Still missing from Griffin’s team is a second in command. When Griffin was hired in April, the state Department of Education announced that it would also “soon add a leader to oversee the development and support of high-quality public charter schools, and this role will work closely with Dr. Griffin to support the portfolio of charter operators serving schools in the Achievement School District.”

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the department, said the right person hasn’t been found for the role yet, and they are still actively seeking candidates.

Griffin acknowledged that the current team will have to do more with less. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed to cut costs, and a new leadership team was brought in under then-superintendent Malika Anderson. Griffin’s team of four is significantly smaller than that of Anderson.

“I believe we have the right people in place and skill set to impact student achievement,” Griffin said. “But there is added responsibility for us because our team is smaller.”

Verna Ruffin, the turnaround district’s chief academic officer, was recently hired as superintendent of a school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, White said. Six former members of central office staff took positions with charter operators within the turnaround district or pursued other opportunities after the restructure last year.

Griffin said now that the new team is in place, they can get to work.

“I have to make some changes while hitting the ground,” Griffin said. “I needed people who understood the context and could get things done.”

pushing back

McQueen calls superintendents’ request to pause state testing ‘illegal and inconsistent with our values’

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pens a letter in response to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.

“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”

Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.

However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.

McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.

“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”

McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.

McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.

“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.

Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below: