School funding

Five things to know about Shelby County Schools’ pared-down budget

More than three months after Shelby County Schools began publicly building its 2015-16 budget, the long, arduous process reaches a milestone Monday when the Shelby County Commission is expected to vote on the county’s $1.1 billion spending plan, funneling about one-third of the amount to K-12 education.

The vote will come more than a month after the Shelby County Board of Education approved the district’s own spending plan — a $974 million budget that slashes $125 million — and requires approval from the County Commission.

Here are five things to know about the significance of the commission’s vote, as well as the financial challenges facing the district under a pared-down budget for next school year.

1. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is getting additional funding from the commission, but probably only about half what he requested.

Hopson and board members had asked commissioners to invest an extra $14.9 million in Shelby County Schools on top of the $381 million allotted based on student population.

During two appearances, they pled their case and were grilled by commissioners over their spending habits. Last week, the commission’s budget and finance committee recommended $7.9 million more for the county’s largest school district, about 10 percent of which would go to district-authorized charter schools and other schools operated by the state-run Achievement School District. The recommended budget also includes another $2.1 million to be distributed among the county’s six suburban municipal school districts.

An increase in funding for education likely will mean cuts to other county departments.

2. How the additional money will be spent is uncertain, since both Hopson and commission leaders have different ideas of what should take priority.

District leaders had asked for extra money to hire more reading intervention coaches, purchase computers for online testing, and recruit a marketing director to promote the district to parents, among other things. They argued that such investments would improve educational outcomes and bring more students back to the district, which has struggled under declining enrollment and related decreases in per-pupil state funding.

But commissioners are recommending that the district dedicate the extra money to ballooning retiree health insurance costs.

While the commission can’t dictate how the district spends its money, district leaders acknowledge the significance of the school system’s $1.4 billion liability for other post-employment benefits. The board is planning to discuss the issue at its June 10 workshop.

3. The district already has approved $125 million worth of cuts for next year.

To balance its budget, the Board of Education voted in April to eliminate 482 positions and outsource services such as school maintenance. At the same time, the district will keep the majority of its 8,000 teachers, who will receive step pay increases, and invest another $7 million in school turnaround efforts. The district also has closed three schools and is moving students out of three others that are being taken over by the state due to low test scores. To stave off more cuts, it will pull $25 million from its savings account.

The district is responding to significant changes in the county’s educational landscape in recent years. In 2013, the former Shelby County Schools merged with the former Memphis City Schools after a funding dispute — then fractured with the creation of six municipal districts in the county’s suburbs. The state also took control of 15 underperforming schools resulting in the loss of thousands of students, while per-pupil funding has remained flat. Meanwhile, costs associated with educating the county’s students — most of whom are poor and academically struggling — continue to climb.

The municipal districts — smaller and just a year old — also struggled financially this year after underestimating their upstart and operating costs and taxpayers’ willingness to pay for new buildings. Municipalities have responded by cutting back on cafeteria services and debating whether to build new schools as originally planned.

4.  The county is increasingly shouldering the cost of K-12 education to offset perceived underfunding by the state.

About one-fourth of the district’s funding comes from the county, with the state providing most of the rest.

County Commission spent almost a third of its total revenue and 60 percent of its collected property tax revenue — about $381 million — on education this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Another 12 percent went toward capital debt accrued through new school construction in the suburbs during the 1990s. On average, the commission has provided the district with $2,800 per student, up 30 percent from 2005.

Meanwhile, state funding levels have generally stagnated, except for some additional money pushed through the state legislature this year by Gov. Bill Haslam, mostly earmarked for teacher pay increases.

At one budget hearing this spring, school administrators complained that the state is increasingly shifting significant education costs onto the county. District leaders in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville also have asked their local funding bodies for more money this year, with Chattanooga’s Hamilton County seeking the biggest hike of 10 percent.

“What incentive does the state have to fully fund the (Basic Education Program) if we keep picking up their slack?” Commissioner David Reaves asked at one point. “We need to create a climate where there’s a burning need [for the state to fulfill its obligation].”

5. Shelby County Schools may take the state funding issue to court, and the county may join the lawsuit.

The Board of Education voted last week to hire an attorney to explore options to force the state to fully fund its BEP formula for funding public education.

District leaders say Shelby County Schools would net at least 103 million more state dollars annually under a fully funded BEP. As it is, the district is challenged to raise teacher pay, improve test scores and provide the innovations necessary to address gaps in student learning. Commissioners say they would consider backing such a lawsuit.

Hamilton County and six other small school districts in southeast Tennessee already have sued the state over the issue. The state’s attorneys have asked that their lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that it is based on a “profoundly flawed interpretation” of three successful previous lawsuits over BEP funding.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.

Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.

Election 2018

Wins, losses, and split decisions: Here’s how Colorado school district tax measures fared

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Wheat Ridge High School teacher Stephanie Rossi, left, teaches a sophomore AP U.S. History class.

Voters in more than two dozen Colorado school districts agreed to tax increases on Tuesday, with some districts seeing success after several previous attempts failed.

The districts ranged from the state’s second-largest, Jeffco Public Schools in Denver’s western suburbs, to the 96-student Hinsdale County district in southwest Colorado.

Of 21 mill levy overrides on the ballot, 15 of them passed, according to a tally kept by the Colorado School Finance Project. Bond requests were not quite as successful. Of 19 requests on the ballot, 12 passed. In addition, voters in the mountain city of Steamboat Springs renewed a sales tax that pays for one in every 10 teachers in its school district. Overall, about two-thirds of the local school tax measures passed this year, the same proportion as last year.  

Mill levy overrides are a kind of property tax increase that provides schools with money for ongoing expenses, like teacher salaries or new programs. Bonds also result in increased property taxes, which are used to pay off the debt incurred by school construction projects.

The widespread success of local school taxes contrasted with the fate of Amendment 73, a statewide tax increase on corporations and higher income earners that was projected to generate $1.6 billion for education. That failed with just 45 percent of the vote. That discrepancy reflects a longstanding pattern in which Colorado voters are friendlier to local tax requests than statewide ones.

Jeffco Public Schools, which serves 86,000 students, had a split result. Voters approved a $33 million mill levy override to increase teacher pay and mental health support for students, but turned down a $567 million bond for school repair and construction. Still, with about 40,000 ballots uncounted Wednesday afternoon, some supporters of Jeffco’s tax measures held out hope the result might change.

Katie Winner, the mother of two Jeffco students, said she was shocked Tuesday night when she saw the mill levy passing and the bond failing. The voters she talked to in person were, if anything, more likely to favor the bond. But to her, the two were closely linked.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

Winner said if the final vote tallies confirm the bond’s defeat, it will be important to have a deeper community conversation about the future of district schools.

Voters in at least one other Colorado district were similarly divided. The Garfield RE-2 district on the Western Slope passed a $4.9 million mill levy override to boost teacher pay. But they turned down a $5.8 million bond to build eight additional elementary classrooms.

Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, said it’s hard to know why voters sometimes approve one tax increase but not the other. One possible explanation, she said, is that voters simply look at the two dollar amounts to be raised and vote for the lesser amount, not understanding that the measures are meant to fund different things or that the bond might have a smaller tax impact than the mill levy.

“They’ll vote for the lower number, not really realizing the financial impact,” Rainey said.

Voters in the metro-area Aurora, Westminster, and Adams 12 Five Star school districts also passed mill levy overrides. For Westminster, it was the first mill levy override since 2002. The small Sheridan district south of Denver passed a $3 million override to be used for salary increases, safety measures, and new technology.

The 2,300-student Elizabeth district in Elbert County passed its first mill levy override. Three previous attempts going back to 2001 had failed, something the superintendent attributed to a largely residential tax base that would bear a bigger burden of any increase. And the 700-student Meeker district in western Colorado passed a $39.7 million bond package for a new high school. The district hopes to receiving matching grants now that taxpayers have put their own money in.

In this case, the district told voters their taxes would not go up because bond debt was being retired and the mill levy would take its place. The $1.6 million increase will go to raise teacher salaries, improve safety, and buy learning technology.

One notable exception was Pueblo 60 in southern Colorado. Voters there turned down a $6 million mill levy override that would have gone in part toward teacher and staff salaries. A divided school board voted 3-2 to ask voters for more money after teachers in the struggling industrial city went on strike in May and won increases in pay and benefits.

But the teachers union came out against the tax increase — an unusual situation — because union leaders believed it was rushed and poorly planned. With almost 17,000 students, Pueblo is the largest school district in Colorado without a mill levy override to supplement base funding. The district recently switched to four-day weeks, and has aging and underused school buildings.

“Clearly, we are disappointed in the election results,” said Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesperson, in a statement. “We will continue to educate our community regarding the critical and important needs of our district.”

The Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest district with 67,500 students, passed a tax increase for the first time in 12 years. In fact, voters passed two. The district has said it will use $40 million from a new mill levy override to increase teacher pay and hire more counselors, and a $250 million bond measure to pay for building repairs and transportation.

The 16,000-student Thompson Valley School District in Loveland also passed both a bond measure and a mill levy override, part of which will be used to maintain current class sizes.

The 14,900-student Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs passed a $298 million bond package that includes plans to build a Career and Technical Education and Innovation Center, as well as to repair and replace aging buildings.

“We heard from our community a need for a career and technical education pathway that will allow (district) graduates to walk right into a living wage without the need for a four-year degree and with [tax measure] 4A we will now be able to provide that,” Littleton school board President Jack Reutzel said in a press release, referring to the bond measure.

Many teachers and district officials lamented the failure of the statewide Amendment 73 measure even as they welcomed new local revenue.

“Colorado voters missed an opportunity to support our students,” Kallie Leyba of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers said in a press release. “We are very concerned about what the implications for Douglas County will be, as well as the implications for districts across our state.”

Rainey, of the Colorado School Finance Project, said that while many voters are eager to fund their local schools, they often don’t understand the big picture. Colorado’s lower-than-average state funding, coupled with the fact that some school districts have passed mill levy overrides and others have not, create wide funding disparities from district to district — something Amendment 73 backers were hoping that ballot measure would fix.

When it comes to what kind of education you get in Colorado, Rainey said, “it does matter where you live.”