School Finance

Updated: Ed Fund worries jangle Capitol nerves as session wanes

Updated May 3, Noon – Concerns about the amount of money in the State Education Fund sparked anxiety at the Capitol Friday about possible changes in the 2014-15 school finance deal that seemed settled earlier this week (see this story for background).

The development made it a frantic day for K-12 lobbyists, who convened in countless huddles to consult and drained their smartphone batteries with non-stop texting.

The issue also prompted a late-afternoon, voices-raised scrum in the House lobby between House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and several district lobbyists.

Key legislators said to expect movement on the issue Monday. And state budget director Henry Sobanet said, “We’ll figure this out early next week.”

The education fund is a dedicated account used to supplement various K-12 programs. Swollen to more than $1 billion this year because of infusions of state surplus funds, the SEF has been a tempting target for lawmakers anxious to increase education spending.

But Hickenlooper administration officials and some legislative budget experts want to be careful about a SEF spending spree so that there’s money available for use in future budget years.

Sobanet told Chalkbeat Colorado late Friday afternoon that he’d like to have a balance of about $660 million in the fund at the end of the 2014-15 budget year. (When the legislative session started, Sobanet was urging $700 million.) Talk around the Capitol Friday was that even achieving that lower number will require cutting about $50 million in SEF spending from education bills just passed or still pending in the legislature.

Sobanet said $50 million “is a moving target” and that a more exact figure has to be determined. “We’ll do that process before we start making recommendations or reductions.”

The biggest targets for cuts could seem to be the $110 million negative factor reduction and the $20 million of additional early literacy funding in House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act. The School Finance Act, House Bill 14-1298, includes $17 million for at-risk preschool and kindergarten funding, $30 million for English language learners and also additional funding for full-day kindergarten in general. Some of that money presumably could be vulnerable.

One influential lawmaker close to the discussions told Chalkbeat that the $110 million is safe, and that what unfolds next week might ease a lot of worries.

“There is a way forward,” he said, declining to elaborate. “There are lots of options.”

Several other pending bills also propose use of SEF money, but those total only about $8 million.

One of those, a proposal intended to improve performance of alternative education campuses (Senate Bill 14-167) was killed in a House committee Friday. And the Senate Appropriations Committee slashed the price tag of the gifted and talented bill (House Bill 14-1102).

Even Senate Bill 14-150, which proposes doubling the current $5 million budget of the Colorado Counselor Corps, “will get a haircut,” one lawmaker said. (The bill already has been sent to the governor, but there are procedural ways around that.)

The dilemma spotlighted splits in the education lobby, with mainline groups anxious to protect the $110 million for the negative factor while more reform-minded groups want to avoid cuts to early childhood, ELL and literacy programs. They often huddled in separate groups Friday.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino was amused and a bit sarcastic about the sudden flurry of lobbyist anxiety over the supposed $50 million gap.

He reminded Chalkbeat that he’s been stressing for months that the levels of 2014-15 spending advocated by K-12 interests were “unsustainable.” The Denver Democrat originally was skeptical about making any reduction in the negative factor.

He repeated such arguments to K-12 lobbyists later during a spirited exchange in the noisy, stuffy House lobby as a water bill debate dragged on in the chamber.

A short time later, Ferrandino, Sobanet and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, huddled briefly in a second-floor alcove. Steadman is vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee and a prime sponsor of the School Finance Act. They broke up smiling.

The parliamentary ball was in the House’s court, as it had to decide what to do with Senate amendments to the success and finance acts.

The House voted Friday night to request that the School Finance Act be taken to conference committee, and it voted to accept Senate amendments to the Success Act. The scope of finance bill is broad enough that any changes to next year’s spending plan could be done there.

The question of the SEF’s balance isn’t an esoteric argument among budget writers

Although the fund has plenty of money at the moment, using it to increase basic school support – known as Total Program Funding – imposes costs in subsequent years on the state’s main General Fund, which provides the bulk of school funding every year. Total program has to increase by inflation and enrollment every year, hikes that have to be borne mostly by the General Fund.

Sobanet wants to keep a certain balance in the education find to help cushion the General Fund in later years and reduce the odds of K-12 budget cuts in the next economic downturn.

School district lobbyists have been working hard this session to get as much money as possible now, and they say districts will worry about future budget cuts if and when they happen.

Lawmakers need to make up their minds fast – they have to adjourn next Wednesday.


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.”

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for hundreds of educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.