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“That draft is already outdated,” Johnston said referring to this version.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.”


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Administration and Planning Committee.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.