money matters

Colorado, a closer look at how your school spends tax dollars is coming Friday

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Coloradans will have a chance to better understand how the state’s public schools are spending tax dollars Friday when the state education department launches a new website that tracks annual financial data.

Commissioned by state lawmakers in 2014, the website reports how much money each school and district collects from federal, state and local taxes, and donations — including those given to charter schools.

The website also charts how each school spends the money on a long list of categories such as personnel, technology and food programs.

The site is the latest development in a multi-year effort to better explain Colorado’s complex school funding system and how schools use their tax dollars. Schools and districts have been required to publish budgets, credit card statements and check registers since 2010.

The new financial details and website put Colorado ahead of most states in school financial reporting.

All states will soon be required to submit school-level financial data to the federal government. The new and rarely discussed mandate is part of the nation’s education laws, which were updated in 2015 with the Every Student Succeed Act.

The financial data in Colorado — and soon across the nation — is a boon for civil rights and education activists who have long argued that poor communities are being short changed by wealthier white communities that have political clout.

“This level of information will show us how school boards divide up their mega budgets,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance policies. “And if it’s not equitable, then schools should be engaged in knowing that and speaking up on their behalf.”

Colorado is one of a few states that allocates more money for students with greater learning needs. However, inequities still exist in the state’s funding system.

Part of the inequity stems from mill levy overrides. Those are local voter-approved tax increases that wealthier school districts such as Cherry Creek and Boulder have little trouble passing.

But voters in school districts such as Greeley and Pueblo, which both serve large populations of poor students, have never approved such an increase.

One shortcoming of the site, Roza said, is the dearth of academic data.

Student data “should be paired with spending,” she said. “You can’t look at outcomes in the absence of costs and you can’t look at costs in the absence of outcomes.”

The legislation that established the new website did not call for academic data to be part of the website. State education department officials said they expect the website to continue to evolve after it becomes public.

One aspect of the site that could prove popular is a feature that allows side-by-side comparisons of how schools and districts spend their money. That worries some who work in education, however.

“It’s fun to do the comparisons,” said Diane Doney, chief financial officer for Littleton Public Schools, which helped the state test the website. “But I really think there is a danger when you start comparing raw numbers and try to make some sort of conclusion about what you’re seeing.”

Doney stressed caution in making comparisons for two reasons.

First, the website does not include student demographic information or other reasons why one school district might receive more money on a per student basis. Small rural school districts, for example, often receive twice the amount of money per student from the state that a large urban district receives.

Second, schools and districts allocate money in different ways. One school district might budget all of its reading coaches at the district level, while a nearby district might allocate that cost at the school level, Doney said.

Users of the website should call their school leader or district finance department if they have questions the website can’t answer, she said.

The website launches about three weeks before a group of lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating how the state should update its school funding system. Part of the conversation is expected to be whether Colorado is spending enough on its schools, or whether schools need to spend tax dollars differently.

Meanwhile, another coalition advocating for more money for schools is working on a potential 2018 ballot initiative.

“I do think the website will start the conversation that will be healthy for parents and constituents,” said Jennifer Okes, executive director of school finance at the Colorado Department of Education. “For the most part, schools are making really good use of their limited resources. This will show where they really are investing their dollars.”

On Friday, the site will contain financial information from the 2015-2016 school year. The site will be updated each year before July 1 with the preceding school year’s finances.

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.”