money money money

Schools would have more control over their money under GOP plan, but it’s unclear whether students would benefit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana schools could see a fundamental shift in how they budget if a new bill proposed by House Republicans moves forward, a change that experts say could also bring some unintended consequences.

House Bill 1009, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, and Rep. Tim Brown, R- Crawfordsville, would collapse several pools of money schools and districts use down into three beginning for the 2018-19 school year: education, operations and debt service. Cook says the move gives schools more flexibility to control how they spend money at a local level and could lead to more money for the classroom.

“Schools for a long time have wanted to have more flexibility to break down the silos of where they can move money,” said Cook, a former school district superintendent. “Those funds that they currently work with, from transportation to capital projects, to bus replacement, they have to be specifically tailored to those areas.”

Typically, schools have several areas where the state distributes money or where local property tax dollars are distributed. These usually include a general fund, which includes sales and income tax dollars that come from the state that pay for teacher salaries and classroom materials; a capital fund, which uses local property tax dollars to pay for building projects and technology; and a transportation fund, which also uses a share of property taxes to pay for getting kids to and from school.

The bill would re-name district general funds “education funds,” which would house all expenses related to student learning, much like it does now. An operations fund would replace several of the other funds, including capital projects and transportation.

The plan would also allow districts to be able to shift dollars back and forth between the operations fund and education fund to close gaps when necessary. Under the current system, money cannot generally be moved between funds, which means districts can find themselves in a tight spot if referenda fail or property taxes fall short.

Dennis Costerison, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, helped Cook research and draft the bill. He said while he’s been lobbying for this setup for a while now, he’s not sure other states have explored a similar option.

“This is a major change,” Costerison said. “I’m optimistic that this is a move in the right direction.”

Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township, said while he wants to be cautious and monitor the bill as it goes forward, so far, he thinks it could offer some much-needed control back to district leaders. But he’s also not sure exactly how lawmakers might change the proposal if it moves forward.

“It allows some control back in the local municipalities with the boards of education to have greater input and oversight into those budgets,” Butts said. “Conceptually it’s great, but it’s so early now.”

The flexibility to transfer money between accounts is particularly appreciated, Butts said, because his district, along with others across Marion County and the state, have struggled to make up for limits put in place in recent years on how much they can collect in from local property taxes.

Cook and other Republican House leaders have said this method would also give schools the ability to have more money go toward classroom instruction. Keeping up buildings is important, Cook said, but if a school could instead purchase something that would enhance teaching, such as blocks to help kids learn to count, add and subtract, that might be more valuable.

“I trust school people to make those good decisions for the communities they represent,” Cook said. “Instruction is first and foremost.”

But Ashlyn Nelson, an Indiana University professor who studies school finance, said there could be some unintended consequences of making these budgeting changes. First off, there’s no good evidence that shows more local control of finances actually helps kids do better in school, she said.

“We think that local operators know how to spend money in an educationally productive way,” Nelson said. “And there’s basically no evidence that that’s the case.”

Plus, districts aren’t required to report budgets at the school building level, so much is still unknown about how money gets spent within districts at all. Similarly, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes a “classroom” or “instructional” expense.

“The whole dollars to the classroom thing … a lot of that is a big smoke-and-mirrors exercise,” Nelson said. “It just really depends on which types of spending you call instructional.”

Teacher benefits, for example, could be characterized as instructional spending, she said, because teachers are the drivers of instruction. Or, they could be classified as another type of expense because that money isn’t technically used on curriculum, programs or classroom materials.

Cook said he thinks lawmakers will be supportive of his bill. He’s also had conversations with other state agencies who responded positively.

“It’s really been vetted now by all the major players in the state government,” Cook said. “So we’re feeling pretty positive about the way it’s shaping up.”

The bill is expected to be heard in the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.