Who Is In Charge

School budget prospects look familiar

Colorado school districts may face 2013-14 budget prospects similar to this year’s situation – no cuts in state aid but not enough new funding to cover expected higher costs.

Stacks of cashThat was one of the messages in the quarterly revenue forecasts presented to the Joint Budget Committee by legislative and executive branch economists Thursday.

Both forecasts told a similar story: State revenues were higher than forecast in June, but revenue growth likely will slow, and economic and political uncertainties cloud the state’s prospects.

“The economy is expected to continue to lose momentum until the first half of 2013,” said legislative chief economist Natalie Mullis. “The risk of recession is rising.”

Funding of K-12 schools consumes about 40 percent of the state’s $7.6 billion general fund budget, so revenue forecasts are closely watched for the possible impact on school support.

The 2012 legislature budgeted $5.3 billion in state and local funding for K-12 in the current school year, including a state share of about $3 billion. The total amount kept average per-pupil funding flat at $6,474.24. School spending had been cut in the previous three budget years.

Henry Sobanet, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, told the committee that in the 2013-14 budget, “We believe we’ll be able to accommodate inflation and enrollment in K-12 in a way the state hasn’t done in recent years.”

Asked after the briefing to elaborate, Sobanet said that doesn’t mean school funding can return to pre-recession conditions.

“The policy goal would be keeping the negative factor unchanged,” he said, explaining how the Hickenlooper administration is approaching the 2012-13 budget, which has to be presented by Nov. 1.

The negative factor is a calculation the legislature uses to reduce K-12 support to the amount needed to balance the overall state budget. Use of the factor reduced this year’s level of school support by about 17 percent from what spending would have been if the full terms of state school finance law and Amendment 23 had been applied. Use of the negative factor in recent years has cut an estimated $1 billion from school funding.

Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, attended the briefing. Asked afterwards about the prospects for 2013-14, she said it will be “maybe a little bit better” than current funding. “I still think the negative factor will grow,” she said, adding, “Nobody’s talking about restoring” funding to earlier levels.

Despite the fact that state funding remained flat for this year, many Colorado school districts had to make cuts and dip into reserves to cover rising costs. Fourteen districts have proposed ballot measures asking voters to approve local tax increases, primarily to cover money lost through past state cuts.

Henry Sobanet
Henry Sobanet, director, Office of State Planning and Budgeting / <em>EdNews</em> file photo

Both Sobanet’s staff and Legislature Council economists found state revenues have come in higher that predicted when the last forecasts were made in June. But both forecasts cautioned that those revenues may be one-time only, driven primarily by revenue from capital gains taxes.

Much of the extra revenue will flow automatically into the State Education Fund, a dedicated account that is used to supplement the school funding that comes from the state’s general fund. Having an education fund of more than $700 million will give lawmakers some flexibility in 2013, but that may be a one-time opportunity, Sobanet indicated.

The next revenue forecasts will be made in late December, setting the budget tone for the legislative session that will convene in January. Updated forecasts made in March are used to finalize the annual state budget, which must be completed before lawmakers adjourn in early May.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.