Show me the money

How should New York spend billions in education funds? Top policymakers start to give their answer.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

They’re making their list and checking it twice.

On Monday, New York’s top education policymakers began the annual rite of requesting funding for education projects they want lawmakers to bake into the state budget, which included $25.8 billion for education last year. The requests are still preliminary; next month, they’ll submit a final version.

A main focus of the state Board of Regents is funding the major new school-improvement plan that each state was required to create under federal law. They’re also seeking money to help schools crack down on bullying, to make free online courses available to more districts, and to create new exams.

The state education department has not yet requested a specific total amount of school funding, but draft documents say a top priority is to increase funding for high-needs schools. Last year, the Regents, which oversee the education department, asked for a $2.1 billion boost in school aid. In the end, the legislature approved a $1.1 billion increase.

Board members on Monday also addressed the looming issue of potential federal budget cuts and an impending $4.4 billion state deficit, according to projections by the governor’s office. State officials suggested Monday that those shortfalls could force them to pare down their funding requests.

“Let’s just really figure out how to do this in a way that makes us look realistic, mindful, thoughtful, and advances the things that we care about,” Chancellor Betty Rosa said.

Here are four things to know about the board’s budget requests:

1.) They focus on four key policy areas.

A state document outlines four main funding priorities: early-learning programs, supports for English learners, expanding career and technical education, and carrying out the state plan created under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

New York’s ESSA plan provides a roadmap for how it evaluate and intervene in struggling schools.

2.) They call increased funding for high-poverty districts a “core priority.”

The Regents want districts with many poor students to get more funding — though they didn’t say how much.

In a draft document, department officials threw their weight behind the “foundation aid” formula, which is designed to give more funding to high-poverty districts.

The formula was created in response to a lawsuit that claimed the state had violated students’ rights by providing districts with too little funding to offer them a solid education. Last year, the state education department estimated that total school aid was $4.3 billion short of what is required by the formula — though Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the formula is a goal, not a requirement.

In its latest budget request, the department says a “core priority” is to push for money promised by the formula to be delivered on an “aggressive timeline.” However, the board on Monday did not float specific amounts it will seek in “foundation aid” or total state funding this year.

3.) They want to award new grants to help cut down on bullying and expand online classes.

The Regents hope to launch an $8 million grant program that would help schools track their school culture and safety, which they hope will help prevent bullying. Another $3 million request would expand online coursework options, with a goal of providing more advanced courses for needy school districts that may not be able to afford traditional courses. Both initiatives are part of the state’s ESSA plan.

The board included other new asks as well, including $100,000 to stream its meetings online.

4.) They want to create new types of tests.

The board wants to develop new types of tests, including foreign-language Regents exams and project-based assessments, which would mark a departure from paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests.

However, the requests will likely be smaller than last year.

They asked for $5 million last year for foreign-language Regents exams in Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese, but said they could shrink the number of languages this year. Similarly, the state documents says more time and research is needed to determine how much it will cost to create project-based assessments.

School Finance

IPS and the chamber outline unconventional three-year partnership to cut spending

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Michael Huber, left, and Lewis Ferebee at a March press conference.

Indiana’s largest school system is on the cusp of an unusual, three-year partnership with the local chamber of commerce designed to carry out extensive cuts that the business group proposed for balancing the district’s budget.

Under an arrangement that the Indianapolis Public Schools Board will vote on Thursday, the Indy Chamber would pay as much as $1 million during the first year for two new district administrators and consulting by outside groups to implement its cost-cutting plan. The agreement is nonbinding, and the chamber or district could withdraw at any time.

The partnership is the culmination of months of negotiation between the chamber and the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, which agreed last spring to delay a public vote on two tax increases to give the chamber time to analyze district finances. In exchange, the chamber agreed to help draft a new request from taxpayers and lend its political support to two tax increases that are on the ballot in November.

The staff members and consultants would help the district implement some of the chambers’ broad recommendations for hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts in the coming years, including possible school closures, reduced transportation, and staff reductions. Many of the potential cuts would likely need approval by the school board.

The aim of the cuts is to stabilize the district budget and generate enough savings to pay for raises for teachers and principals. Chamber officials say they are so invested in the effort because the prosperity of the city’s urban core, and its ability to attract investment, depend on the success of Indianapolis Public Schools.

But the plan gives the Indy Chamber a rare level of involvement in managing the district, said Zachary Baiel, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. If the chamber is able to help the district improve its operations, the arrangement could be positive for the community, he said. But he raised concerns that the public could be shut out of decision making.

“Any constituent group would love to have this kind of access,” Baiel said. “It’s a fascinating precedent that’s unfolding.”

At a meeting Tuesday night where the proposal was discussed, school board member Venita Moore said the chamber has expertise that the district “desperately” needs. But she also asked for assurances that the district would have ultimate say on the cuts. “I just want to make sure that we’re taking the lead,” she said.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee assured Moore that the district is “clearly driving this work.”  The new positions would be funded by the chamber, he said at a press briefing Tuesday morning, but the district would choose who to hire and supervise the staff members.

The chamber and the district have already discussed how the business group can help the schools find savings, Ferebee said. “This is an opportunity for us to cement some of those details of how they will collaborate with the district,” he said.

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan said help from the chamber is essential because district staff members are already working overtime and couldn’t take on the extra responsibilities. “We wouldn’t have the resources to be able to devote to such targeted strategic thinking,” she said.

The chamber initially recommended nearly $500 million in sweeping cuts to Indianapolis Public Schools over eight years. But ultimately, the district and the business group settled on a compromise approach that would allow the district to make slower, less extensive cuts.

Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber said now that the group and the district are on the same page about the referendums, the chamber is focused on helping the district with operational and financial planning.

“We are working as colleagues and bringing them some additional resources,” Huber said. “I personally think there’s no more important work that we can do as a business organization than provide this type of resources to help IPS get where it wants to go.”

With the chamber’s support, the district is asking voters for $220 million more in tax dollars over eight years for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries. A separate measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. That’s substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined.

Board member Kelly Bentley said the district needs to be clear about the cuts that will be necessary to make the current plan work. “At the end of the day, in order to achieve the significant savings we are talking about, we are going to have to close schools and lay people off,” she said.

The positions funded by the chamber include a chief of transformation, who would be tasked with rethinking and improving the district’s non-academic functions, such as financial operations, transportation, facilities, food service, and information technology. An enterprise development director would lead cost savings projects. The chamber would also pay for at least a year of consulting by Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Policy Analytics, and, if necessary, other consultants.

This is not the first time the Indy Chamber has sought to influence the future of the district. The chamber made similar recommendations in 2014, when the district was projected to run a budget deficit. The administration eventually implemented some of the suggestions, but concerns about the deficit dissipated when it was revealed to be an accounting error.

funding battle

After three years, the fight to spend more money on Tennessee schools inches toward trial

PHOTO: Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean
Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman looks over evidence during a 2015 trial. The Nashville judge is presiding over a school funding lawsuit that pits Tennessee's two largest districts against the state.

A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is one step closer to trial after a Nashville judge turned back the state’s second attempt in three months to derail the case.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last week stood by her decision from July to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on constitutional and legal grounds.

Her rulings mean that the case — which the state’s attorneys say “has few rivals in terms of its breadth and its cost” — is on track to go to trial next spring in Nashville.

If successful, the lawsuit could force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which at almost $5 billion already takes the largest chunk out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation last year.

Tennessee is among more than a half dozen states where lawsuits are winding their way through the courts over the quality of schools, the adequacy of funding, and whether some students are being shortchanged, especially as states raise academic standards without always increasing funding for resources and training to help students meet those benchmarks.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee has been an exception by adding $1.5 billion to the K-12 pot during his eight-year administration. But attorneys for Memphis and Nashville schools say the investment falls woefully short and that Tennessee isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

Both legal teams are lining up expert witnesses, whose testimony will provide the meat of the case. They already have filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and are scheduled to take depositions this fall.

“This case has been pending for over three years with the ultimate goal of getting to trial to make a ruling, and we are closer now than ever,” said attorney Charles Grant, who represents both districts through the Tennessee firm of Baker Donelson.

Tennessee still could appeal to a state court in an effort to sidestep Bonnyman’s rulings, but that would be highly unusual. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Herbert Slattery said Tuesday that the state is evaluating its options under Tennessee law.

The question of adequate school funding is different from one posed by several previous landmark cases in the 1980s and ‘90s that focused on whether Tennessee was funding schools equitably. This litigation is about the size of the funding pie, not just how it’s carved up.

In documents, the state called the adequacy argument “extraordinary” since the court is being asked, in essence, to order the Legislature to boost its spending on schools, which would “require either raising taxes or redirecting existing revenue from other state services, or possibly both.”

"We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education."Lori Patterson, attorney

Tennessee’s two earlier funding cases ended up at the State Supreme Court and forced the state to change its funding formula so that smaller and rural school systems now receive a greater share of money than they previously were getting.

If the current legal battle mirrors those cases, litigation likely will drag on for years through trial and appeals and end up again in the state’s highest court.

A trial itself could take weeks and even months. A recent trial over the adequacy of school funding in New Mexico consumed two months in court. Another trial on an adequacy claim in Connecticut lasted five months.

The decision by Nashville’s school board to join in the Memphis lawsuit slowed the process but also made the plaintiffs’ case stronger, said Lori Patterson, another attorney representing the school systems.

“They’re joining together to say education is not adequately funded from a constitutional standpoint,” she said. “We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.”

Theirs is not the only funding lawsuit pending in Chancery Court. Months before Shelby County Schools went to court, Hamilton County’s school board and six other districts in southeast Tennessee filed their own suit asking the court to order the Legislature to address a funding formula that they say leaves schools chronically underfunded. That case appears to have stalled, however, and representatives for the state and Hamilton County Schools had no comment on its status.

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