School Finance

School finance bills cross finish line

The Senate on Wednesday evening accepted House amendments and re-passed two major school finance bills, one to fund K-12 education in 2013-14 and another that proposes to modernize the entire system of paying for education.

Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Senate Bill 13-260, next year’s $5.5 billion finance bill, passed 23-12. Senate Bill 13-213, dubbed the “future school finance act,” received a 20-15 vote, with all Republicans voting no.

The next and perhaps the crucial test for Senate Bill 13-213 could come in November, when voters may have the chance to decide whether to raise income taxes by about $1 billion to pay for the new system. The bill won’t go into effect if voters don’t approve higher taxes.

There was no discussion on either bill, not even final pitches for SB 13-213 by Democratic sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver and Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder.

In contrast to the budget cuts of the last four years, SB 13-260 provides an increase of 2.7 percent in average per-pupil funding. Total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, an increase of about $210 million. Average per pupil funding would move up from the current $6,479 to $6,652. The bill also provides additional funding for the Colorado Preschool Program and for special education. (Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff note.)

Next year’s school funding is 15.49 percent lower than it would have been without use of what’s called the negative factor, a mechanism that allows lawmakers to set school funding at an amount necessary to balance the overall state budget.

Give the recent healthy increases in state revenues, some education interest groups lobbied for even higher 2013-14 funding in an effort to further reduce the estimated $1 billion shortfall created by use of the negative factor in recent years. There also was some argument about whether the negative factor was being calculated properly. Legislative leaders were resistant to those pleas, arguing that recent revenue increases were largely one-time.

SB 13-213 would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates. (Get details in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The details of the ballot measure needed to trigger SB 13-213 remain unclear. A total of 20 different measures have been proposed by two advocacy groups, one from the business community and one that’s education related. Tax-increase advocates are expected to decide later this month on a single proposal to take to the signature-gathering process, although there remains some disagreement about whether to go to the ballot this year.

Little love for energy-efficient schools bill

Sen. Andy Kerr’s energy-efficient schools bill stayed alive Wednesday, but only after a crucial section of Senate Bill 13-279 was amputated by the House Education Committee.

The bill is the latest version of an idea the Lakewood Democrat has been pushing unsuccessfully for years – requiring new school buildings to meet energy efficiency standards.

As it currently stands, the bill would require new schools built after next Jan. 1 and renovations involving more than 50 percent of an existing building meet “the highest energy efficiency standards practicable.”

The bill has been opposed by school district lobbyists because of the potential extra costs and what district’s see as the bill’s infringement on local control. One particularly disliked provision of the original bill required districts to pay outside experts to verify the energy efficiency of new buildings.

The committee Wednesday unanimously adopted an amendment to remove outside verification from the bill. Amendments to exempt charter schools from the requirements and to make the whole measure voluntary were defeated by the committee’s Democratic majority. The measure then passed on a 7-6 party-line vote.

The committee’s action didn’t silence the critics, and there are likely to be House floor fights over amendments on charter schools, making the program voluntary and over the definition of “practicable.” It’s also possible the issue of outside verification will come up again.

With the 2013 session required to adjourn next Wednesday, SB 13-279 also faces the possibility of “dying on the calendar,” meaning the bill dies if the House and Senate don’t agree on amendments before the final gavel falls.

The hearing, probably the committee’s last meeting of the 2013 session, provided a rare example of the “reluctant sponsor.” Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, is carrying the bill in the House and made it pretty clear that she’s doing so out of respect for Kerr rather than because she’s enthusiastic about the idea.

“I believe Sen. Kerr has very good intentions in this,” she said at one point. “I’m conflicted about all his … no bill is perfect. This one has particular challenges, and I’m glad I don’t have to vote on it.” Gerou is an architect and knows a thing or two about building standards.

Incentives for AP tests trimmed

At the same time Wednesday morning the Senate Education Committee had its own go-round with a bill that raised lots of questions but passed anyway.

House Bill 13-1056 is a bipartisan measure that proposes to expand availability of Advanced Placement classes and tests in small rural school districts by offering per-student bonuses to districts that expand AP offerings and to students who take the tests.

The bill has raised questions about its cost and about the fairness of providing bonuses to only some districts.

The committee approved an amendment reducing the bonus amounts but rejected a change that would have paid students for passing the AP tests, not just for taking them. The measure next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where its cost (now somewhere below $500,000) could make it vulnerable.

Also crossing the finish line

The House Wednesday accepted Senate amendments and re-passed three education bills, including:

House Bill 13-1117 – This bill is a Hickenlooper administration priority and would consolidate various early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services. Passed 39-25.

House Bill 13-1194 – The measure expands eligibility for resident tuition rates to certain military dependents. Passed 64-0.

House Bill 13-1005 – This proposal allows the community college system to create pilot, relatively short programs that combine adult basic education and vocational training programs. Passed 45-19.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for hundreds of educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.