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.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”