School Finance

Finance bill still a moving target

It looks like Sen. Mike Johnston’s proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system will be formally introduced in the legislature next week, and it’s also likely the bill will be at least a bit different from the draft version that’s been circulating publicly for nearly two weeks.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting.

The Denver Democrat talked about the bill and his plans during a two-hour “public forum” Thursday at the History Colorado center, attended by about 150 people. The event was the last of some 150 meetings Johnston has held over the last two years to promote and build support for his plan.

Johnston’s proposal is intended to make the state’s school funding system more equitable by directing money to schools with the greatest needs and more adequate by increasing the amount of funding. Key elements of the plan include more funding for at-risk students, English language learners and special education students; full funding of preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten; a shift in the state and local shares of school funding, and increased overall funding to partially compensate for recent cuts in K-12 support.

The proposal requires two steps – legislature passage of the new formula and voter approval next November of perhaps $1 billion in tax increases to pay for the plan. If voters say no the formula wouldn’t go into effect. (Get more details on the current draft of the proposal in this EdNews story.)

Thursday’s meeting highlighted some of Johnston’s plans for the bill and some of the questions and objections to the plan. The session included breakout groups in which Johnston and aides explained and answered questions about various parts of the proposal.

“That draft is already outdated,” Johnston said referring to this version. But neither he nor his aides gave details on specific changes that will be included in the version to be introduced in the Senate. (Another set of data yet to be released are district-by-district financial estimates of the plan’s impact.)

There were lots of questions about and some criticisms of the plan. The strongest was voiced by Randy DeHoff, a former State Board of Education member who now works for an online school. The plan is “a lot more money going into a 19th century system,” he said, “leaving the districts in charge and leaving out the students.”

Here are some of the concerns that emerged during Thursday’s discussion:

Charter schools: Several speakers complained that the plan does nothing to solve the funding inequities imposed on charter schools by current state law. “There’s nothing in the bill right now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” said Johnston aide Will Gohl.

Participants at Feb. 28 school finance meeting.
Meeting participants listen to Sen. Mike Johnston.

The negative factor: Current state law includes a mathematical formula called the negative factor that allows the legislature to reduce annual school funding to an amount the helps balance the state budget, regardless of what school funding should have been. His bill doesn’t address that issue, and Johnston said it’s “politically impossible” to eliminate the negative factors, which has slashed an estimated $1 billion from school funding in the last four years.

The Lobato decision: One speaker complained that Johnston’s plan doesn’t meet the requirements of a district court decision in Lobato v. State, which found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. The case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. Johnston said, “We don’t believe this [bill] solves the Lobato lawsuit, nor is it meant to. It is one step along the way.”

Nobody at the meeting raised this question, but some conservatives, primarily state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, have complained that the proposed bill doesn’t address the cost of teacher pensions under the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Johnston basically dismissed that criticism, saying PERA’s future solvency has been handled by legislation passed in 2009. “That’s why we haven’t seen it as part of the school finance plan.”

Responding to concerns, Johnston and his legislative partner, Boulder Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath, had some tough love for critics.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Johnston said. “Insisting on a proposal you know can’t pass is a version of doing nothing.”

Heath was even more plain-spoken.

“This is put-up or shut-up time. … We can’t solve every problem everybody wants to solve. … Please understand you’re not going to get everything you want.”

School Finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.