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.

Fund Students First

Memphis locals rally for extra school funding, demanding it be spent on student needs

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
About 40 education advocates met before today's commission meeting to rally for more direct funding for student needs.

Lobbying for how Shelby County Schools should spend an extra $12.7 million just granted from the county’s surplus, a crowd of 40 parents, students, and education advocates lined the glass-paneled doors of the county commission office today and demanded the money be used to “fund students first.”

But after the commission voted to use the funds only for one-time expenses instead of recurring costs, it is unclear that the advocates’ demands will be met.

Among the crowd was Brenda Crawford, a former student at Georgian Hills Middle, where she said she’s had “firsthand experience with ripped textbooks, leaky roofs, permanent subs, lack of technology, and cut programs.”

Now a rising sophomore at Trezevant High School, Crawford joined Campaign for School Equity’s Student Advocacy Program to push for better college preparation.

“If we get more funding for health specialists and AP classes, then our academic growth can go higher and then kids can have a better learning experience,” she said.

Participating organizations included Stand for Children Tennessee, Campaign for School Equity, Tennessee Charter School Center, Shelby County Young Democrats, the Memphis Grassroots Organizing Coalition, Memphis Education Fund, Memphis LIFT, Catholic peace group Pax Christi, and grassroots organization Gray Panthers. Leaders in these groups know the power of collective action. The last time they stood together, the commission approved a $22 million boost for local schools.

“Partnership is obviously really important,” said Carl Schneider, community organizer for Stand for Children. “I think sometimes these education advocacy groups are seen as really disparate, and funding for our schools is something everyone can really rally behind.”

District leaders originally planned to use the funds for additional services such as behavioral specialists, workforce training, school resource officers, and school counselors.

“Our schools need every one of those things,” said Daniel Henley, a pastor at Journey Christian Church. “And I think this $12.7 million is just a start… Yes to behavioral specialists, yes to guidance counselors – we need them all.”

But some parents are wary that the money may not be spent responsibly, and they urged each other to hold school leaders accountable.

“I don’t want you to make more administrative positions, or make more offices,” said Mahalia Brown, whose son just graduated from Memphis Business Academy. “Make sure the money goes to the kids, to the teachers, to people who actually need it, not just administration.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, said she wants the money to go to efforts that tackle adverse childhood experiences as well as special education and facilities fees for charter schools. Her biggest wish, though, was that the money not go to waste.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Commissioner Eddie Jones, a supporter of the extra funding, talks with Memphis LIFT parents before the meeting.

“If you got all that money before, and now you’re coming back asking for more money, you’re just throwing money at things and ain’t nothing happening,” she said. “You don’t give kids $100 to go to the mall and they come back with a pack of candy and all their money is gone.”

Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones are both graduates of Memphis public schools. At the pre-meeting rally, they echoed support for additional funding – and for spending it wisely.

“Funding education and funding education properly are the greatest public safety platform or plan that we can have,” Turner said.

If the commission can come back with a plan to make a “smart dollar investment” in its local public schools, said state representative Raumesh Akbari, then political groups like the Shelby County Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators will have renewed momentum.

“You’ll give us the credibility when we go into this new administration in 2019 and we talk about sending some state dollars down to match those county dollars,” he said.

Budget approved

County approves more money for Memphis schools, but skirts obligation to match it next year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Eddie Jones led the county commission's budget committee this year as Shelby County Schools compromised on a deal to close its budget gap for the 2018-19 school year.

Shelby County leaders have approved a request for $12.7 million for Memphis schools, but, unlike in years past, the district is not guaranteed to get all of that again next year.

The decision to approve the budget sets in motion an action that meets the district’s needs for now, but prevents each of the county’s school systems from fully benefiting from the county’s expected surplus in tax revenue.

That’s because about half of that money will go toward one-time costs. This is important because unless a district’s student population declines, state law requires the county to pay local districts at least as much as the previous year for ongoing expenses. But the county is under no obligation to carry over payment for one-time expenses such as textbooks or furniture.

The full commission wanted to approve the entire $12.7 million for Shelby County Schools and earmark that money for ongoing expenses. The district’s original plan was to use the money for costs such as hiring more school resource officers and reading specialists, improving the district’s workforce training classes, and adding more advanced courses.

But Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration, which is advocating for a property tax cut, only wanted to approve $6.1 million. David Reaves, a commissioner and former school board member, suggested that some of that money be used for one-time costs.

So, in an unusual move, commissioners compromised by approving $6.1 million for continuing expenses, but signing off on the rest for one-time expenses only. That’s money the county is not required by the state to approve again next year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson praised the commission’s vote as “creative” to make ends meet even though their first choice was rejected.

“At the end of the day, we obviously want more dollars in that category because we have great needs, but we also know there’s a balancing act the commission has,” he said after the meeting. “I think it was a good resolution to a very complex situation.”

Exactly what that one-time payment will go toward is still being finalized, said Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance. The board must rework some of the budget because the district can’t use money for one-time expenses to pay for ongoing needs. School board members meet Tuesday for a work session and are expected to discuss it then.

Also as part of the commission’s vote on the district’s budget, a plan to fund preschool for low-income families was also approved. Read more in our story from last week.

The county is expecting up to $20 million extra in property taxes, which sparked the discussion on where it would go. Shelby County Schools plans to use $49 million of its savings account to pay for additional positions and programs, such as behavior specialists and school counselors, and adding American Way Middle School to the district’s Innovation Zone for chronically low-performing schools.

If the additional $6 million had been approved in the way Shelby County Schools originally requested, all seven districts in the county would have locked in more resources for years to come.

About 40 people representing six advocacy organizations rallied before the county commission meeting to push for a larger chunk of the extra funding to go to schools. As commissioners discussed the proposal, they applauded the smooth process.

“We put this thing together and got an agreement on it,” said Commissioner Eddie Jones.