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

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscience I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”