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.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the Council Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.