Follow the money

All Indianapolis districts gain state dollars under Senate budget plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Sidener Academy in Indianapolis Public Schools read or do homework.

Indiana Senate Republicans want to boost funding for teacher bonuses and reduce losses for school districts serving lots of poor students, according to a budget plan released Thursday.

The Senate proposal calls for raising education funding by $358 million, or 3.25 percent, over the next two years — the most of any state budget plan presented this year. Per-student funding would also increase slightly to $5,274 in 2019, up from the $5,088 school districts received in 2017.

The plan includes few surprises, but marks the next phase of the state’s budget negotiations. The House proposed a smaller $273 million, 2.8 percent funding increase for education last month, although the House plan would include higher per-student funding. Much of the Senate increase appears to come from the provisions for teacher bonuses and poor students.

According to Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-making Appropriations Committee, the funding increase includes $40 million per year directed at the “complexity index,” which determines how much extra money districts receive to educate poor students. That will primarily benefit urban and rural schools, he said. Based on changes to how that formula is calculated, most districts still lose complexity dollars, but in the Senate plan, the losses are less steep than what the House projected.

“We thought that Indiana has a good reputation across the nation as funding those who have the greatest needs, so we thought we needed to work on that a little bit more,” Kenley said. “I think it’s an equitable result.”

Democrats applauded those increases, though the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Karen Tallian, said they weren’t enough.

Under the Senate’s budget, every district in Marion County sees its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools, which would receive cuts in the House plan.

Growing suburban districts like Zionsville and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps from the Senate, while shrinking districts, including East Chicago and Gary, would lose state money. But overall, the state’s poorest districts seem to fare better under the Senate’s plan than the House’s.

The Senate’s budget also adds back in $40 million per year for teacher bonuses, which the House had removed from earlier proposals — one of a number of changes proposed by state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The bonus program would work slightly differently than it has in years past, and dole out money based on school enrollment rather than ISTEP scores. The change comes after wide disparities in last year’s bonuses were criticized by educators across the state.

“We think, number one, that we need to make sure we get more money to the classroom teacher,” Kenley said. “We think teachers everywhere that are doing a good job should be rewarded for that.”

The Senate’s new plan would distribute $39 per student to each district in the state. That money would then be divvied up among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent could be added into a teacher’s base salary. That would help teachers boost their future pension payments, which year-end stipends do not, Tallian said.

Like the House budget plan, the Senate budget increases funding for English learners, but it weights that funding toward schools where English learners make up at least 5 percent of their enrollment. Overall, an additional $11.5 million is set aside for those schools over the next two years.

The Senate plan also adds in requirements for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Those schools wouldn’t qualify for the English-learner or teacher bonus grants, and would only get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. The House’s plan would increase that to 100 percent.

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the Senate plan, as with the House plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017. The Senate also includes those figures as a budget line item, rather than just as part of the funding formula, which Kenley said was more transparent. Tallian agreed.

“It’s a great move that we’ve been calling for for several years,” she said.

The Senate budget also includes:

  • $16 million per year for the state’s preschool program, a $4 million increase per year. The proposal also allows programs from all 92 counties participate, rather than the current five — similar to bills that passed out of the Senate earlier this year.
  • $1 million per year for a home-based early education program called UpStart.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $1 million per year to “align” initiatives regarding science, technology, engineering and math education.
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program.
  • Funding increases for special education and honors grants.
  • Funding increases for Advanced Placement and PSAT testing.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.