School Finance

Compact model of school finance plan still in the shop

A stripped-down version of last year’s school finance overhaul may soon join the growing line of bills that hope to tap a one-time surplus of K-12 funding.

But that proposal may face resistance from groups that want to increase basic school funding, not pay for new programs, and it may conflict with plans to save some surplus funds for the future.

Sen. Mike Johnston’s Senate Bill 13-213 didn’t go into effect because voters subsequently defeated Amendment 66, the ballot measure that would have paid for it. So the Denver Democrat now is scavenging parts of that plan to build a smaller model he hopes to sell to the 2014 legislature.

Johnston said last week that the bill could be introduced within a few weeks, but the timetable likely depends on how much support Johnston can gather. The bill’s contents are a moving target, and some influential interest groups that have kicked the tires aren’t impressed. Negotiations are continuing.

On the other hand, taking the bill public soon may be necessary to give Johnston’s ideas visibility in the discussion over how to use what could be as much as $1 billion available in the State Education Fund (SEF), an account that’s dedicated to K-12 spending.

“We need to make our case in the midst of all the other education debate,” said Johnston, who is working on the bill with Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.

Six bills with a combined draw on the SEF of $40 million already have been introduced. Another 10 bills without specific price tags also are in the mix, including potentially expensive plans to expand full-day kindergarten and broaden services for English language learners.

The 2013 coalition is fraying

Johnston’s SB 13-213 and A66 were a big political compromise intended to unite various education interests, from reform groups to school districts, because the $1 billion in new income tax revenue would have paid for some initiatives reformers wanted and for partial restoration of recent years’ budget cuts, something districts wanted. (Refresh your memory on the details in this story from the Chalkbeat Colorado archives.)

Since there’s now no new money for anybody, jockeying for what funding is available has intensified competition among interest groups, and all eyes are focused on the SEF.

The fund is more flush than it’s been in years, primarily because a 2012 law put $1.1 billion in state surpluses into the SEF. Legislative economists project the SEF will contain about $2 billion when the 2014-15 budget year starts next July 1. Some $850 million already is scheduled to be spent, leaving a balance of just under $1.2 billion when the 2014-15 year ends.

Executive branch economists in the Office of State Planning and Budgeting take a more conservative view, estimating there will be $1.6 billion in the SEF at start of 2014-15, $887 million in planned spending and a $712 million ending balance.

Whatever the number, it’s a tempting target for lawmakers, even it’s one-time money, unlike the $1 billion-plus that A66 would have generated for schools every year.

Johnston-Hamner bill would combine key initiatives

While other legislators are proposing individual dips into that pot, Johnston is working to assemble a plan that would combine several spending programs in a single bill.

Those ideas are downsized versions of some programs and spending proposed in SB 13-213, leading some statehouse observers to dub the new measure “Son of 213.” Its reported formal working title is the Student Success Act.

“We have some concepts out there,” Johnston said, without going into details. He noted he’s looking for Republican support for the bill. (Republican lawmakers, Johnston allies on previous education bills, abandoned him last year over SB 13-213 because they opposed the tax increase.)

According to several people familiar with the discussions, the following elements are being considered for inclusion in the bill. The cost is estimated at $230 to $250 million, about half in one-time spending and half in recurring annual costs. As with the elements, the cost is a moving target.

  • Increased kindergarten funding – The bill may include $100 million to increase state reimbursement for kindergarten students as an incentive to expand full-day programs. (Kindergarten reportedly has replaced increased preschool funding as a priority in an effort to gain GOP support.)
  • Reform implementation – Also under consideration is $100 million for districts to help them pay for implementation of new standards, tests and educator evaluations.
  • Early literacy – Districts also could receive $20 million to help fund implementation of the 2012 READ, which requires students to be reading at grade level by the time they enter fourth grade.
  • English language learners – The measure may include $15 million for expansion of services to these students.
  • Enrollment counting – Conversion to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment could get $10 million for technology costs.
  • Financial transparency – Districts also could receive $5 million for the costs of improved spending reporting to the public.
  • Charter school construction – Also under consideration is providing an additional $20-$25 million to charter schools for facilities needs.

Republican lawmakers already have introduced individual bills related to kindergarten funding, English language learners, enrollment counting, financial transparency and charter construction needs. While those bills are unlikely to pass on their own in the Democratic-majority General Assembly, including those issues in his bill could give Johnston a lever to gain some GOP support.

Districts push back on earmarked funding

Plans to dip into the SEF face two big hurdles.

The first is the push by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association to reduce the “negative factor,” the formula used by the legislature to reduce annual school funding from how the state funding formula otherwise would have calculated it. It’s a device used to balance the overall state budget.

Wish list for SEFVarious bills propose to tap the fund to pay for such things as:
  • Data upgrades
  • ECE quality improvement
  • Charter facilities
  • Teacher bonuses
  • Gifted & talented
  • Financial transparency
  • Full-day kindergarten
  • School meals
  • Enrollment count system
  • ELL program expansion

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s revised 2014-15 budget proposal calls for $5.7 billion in K-12 spending, including $3.78 billion in state funds. That would be a $241.1 million increase over this school year. On top of that districts would receive $276.7 million in what’s called categorical funding, money that’s earmarked for ELL students, special education, transportation and certain other costs.

The current negative factor is estimated at $1.004 billion. The governor’s budget would take it to about $1.002 billion next year.

In the wake of A66’s defeat, district interests are pushing hard to use any extra money to “buy down” the negative factor and not to fund new programs like Johnston is proposing.

The school boards group is pushing for a buy down of at least $100 million, and the Denver Area Superintendents Council is suggesting a $275 million increase in school spending, most of it to reduce the negative factor and some of it to increase support for at-risk students. A newly formed group of high-poverty districts also may push for additional at-risk funding.

Without some movement on the negative factor, key education interest groups are highly skeptical about Johnston’s bill-in-progress. District lobbyists say they aren’t getting much sympathy about the negative factor from Democratic leaders, at least in the House.

Spend now or spend later?

The second hurdle to big raids on the SEF is the desire by the Hickenlooper administration and legislative budget writers to maintain a healthy balance in the fund as a cushion against education spending needs in future years, especially if the economy takes a downturn.

K-12 schools are funded by a combination of money from the SEF and the state’s main General Fund. If the schools spending base is increased, even if that initially comes from the education fund, the General Fund bears most of the burden in future budget years. That’s because the state constitution requires base funding to increase by enrollment and inflation every year.

SEF primer

The administration would like to leave a balance of about $700 million in the SEF at the end of 2014-15, letting it decline to $400 million at the end of 2017-18. (In addition to the one-time infusion of cash, the SEF receives an annual share of income tax revenues totaling more than $500 million a year.) Keeping a healthy balance in the education fund allows budget writers to reduce the pressure of K-12 spending on the General Fund.

So lawmakers face a three competing interests when they consider school funding this session – new programs, reducing the negative factor and saving for future education costs.

The riddle likely won’t be answered until April, after new state revenue forecasts are issued in late March, after the main state budget bill firms up and after legislative leaders choose the winners from among all the new spending bills proposed by lawmakers, both for education and other state programs.

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”