A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”