First round in a big bout

Speaker Ferrandino pitches new higher ed funding formula

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Speaker Mark Ferrandino meets with Colorado Commission on Higher Education

The questions were flying like balls out of pitching machine Friday when House Speaker Mark Ferrandino defended his new higher education funding bill at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Questions and comments by member Hereford Percy summed up what many of his colleagues: “What are we fixing?” and “Do we have time to do it adequately?”

Ferrandino’s bill proposes to create a new formula for dividing state support among Colorado colleges and universities, putting more money into the resident tuition discounts known as College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends and also basing some college funding on student retention and graduation rates.

“For too long the budget was focused on the institutions and the needs of the institutions,” said Ferrandino, sitting alone at the witness table in the Capitol’s cavernous Old Supreme Court Chamber. “We need to look at what are the needs of the public.”

The University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado would lose funding under the plan, along with Adams State University, according to a spreadsheet Ferrandino has circulated.

The biggest gainers would be the Colorado State University System and Metropolitan State University of Denver. The bill would produce only modest additional revenue for the community college system. Colorado Mesa University, Fort Lewis College and the Colorado School of Mines also would gain funding.

The Denver Democrat’s bill has been rumored for weeks, was first circulated widely early this week and was introduced formally on Thursday as House Bill 14-1319 with more than 40 cosponsors.

Ferrandino, who’s serving his last year in the General Assembly, wants a bill passed into law this session. It would go into effect for the 2015-16 budget year. The measure does include a provision allowing CCHE and the institutions to review the bill over the summer and suggest possible changes to the 2015 legislature.

“We have eight weeks in the legislative session left,” Ferrandino said. “I know some people think that’s not a lot of time [but] if there’s a will there’s a way.”

Higher education lobbyists “do a very good job of making sure that nothing changes the status quo too much,” he said. “The only way I see for this conversation to really happen” is for the bill to be considered this session, he said.

Several commissioners were skeptical of the rush, saying a shift in how colleges are funded needs a longer conversation.

Happy Haynes / File photo
Happy Haynes / File photo

“This is a huge endeavor [for] eight weeks,” said commissioner Happy Haynes. “Help me visualize what the work plan looks like to reach resolution, a work plan that involves any of us sleeping.”

Ferrandino stuck to his guns and stressed he’s open to changes in the bill. “I want to emphasize here that this is the start of the conversation,” he said.

Calling the current funding system “something of a black box,” Ferrandino said state support needs to be better aligned with state policy goals like increasing enrollment of underserved students, doing a better job of retaining students and raising the numbers of students who receive degrees.

“People don’t have that high a view of higher education,” he said. “I believe something like this changes that conversation with the public. Their view is you give money to the institutions and it’s squandered, it’s wasted [on] highly paid executives, football stadiums.”

He also said, “I like change. I like taking the apple cart and turning it over and seeing what happens.”

Commissioner Patricia Pacey quipped, “I don’t want to upset the apple cart unless I think the new apple cart will produce a better product.”

Commissioners also were skeptical that the bill would produce significant change.

The measure would allocate more than half of state support based on enrollment through COF stipends, and only 3.9 percent on funding would be based on student retention and 6.1 percent on degree completion, according to a Department of Higher Education analysis.

“I still have a hard time understanding what this bill is trying to improve upon,” said commissioner Luis Colon. “I just don’t see what the incremental improvement is.”

Several commissioners noted that state has an existing higher education performance-funding plan, which is supposed to go into effect in a few years if certain budgetary targets are met.

Ferrandino said that program is too small to influence institutional behavior but would remain on schedule if his bill passes.

(State support, by the way, supplies only about a quarter of higher education funding, with the rest of institutional revenue supplied by tuition.)

Pacey, who’s an economist with experience in government finance, said she needed more information. “Can we expect something more substantial in the next week or two?” she asked. “Can we get some scenarios across different institutions?”

A word from the institutions

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson / File photo
University of Colorado President Bruce Benson / File photo

Ferrandino left after spending more than 90 minutes with the commission. He was followed at the witness table by two of the state’s more prominent presidents, Kay Norton of UNC and Bruce Benson of CU.

“Certainly we at UNC agree with the fundamental goal of the proposed legislation … that policy ought to drive funding and ought to be student focused,” Norton said. “What we don’t agree on is how to have a thoughtful conversation,” indicating the remaining weeks of the legislative session don’t provide enough time.

Benson said, “We do have a problem with the further inequities that would be created” by the bill. “The most troubling issue with the bill is the impact it will have over time. When are we going to hit another bump in the road, when we will have another downturn.”

The bill does a provision that would cushion loss of support by individual colleges when overall funding drops. And if state support dropped more than 15 percent in a year, future legislatures could suspend use of the bill’s formulas.

Ferrandino said he hopes to meet with college and universities leaders late next week, prepare amendments based on that meeting and then get back to the commission.

Read the bill text here.

Controversy

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.