School Finance

McQueen proposes $57 million more for K-12 education next year

PHOTO: TN.gov

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked Wednesday for an additional $57 million for initiatives including professional development for Tennessee teachers and increasing transparency in testing in the state’s new TNReady era.

She also hinted that more money might be in the works for teacher salaries, technology and efforts to boost student reading skills.

Presenting her first budget proposal as education chief, McQueen asked Gov. Bill Haslam for the additional money for 2016-17 on top of more than $4.5 billion already being spent this year to fund schools.

“The investments that have already been made in education have certainly paid off with great dividends,” McQueen told the governor, citing Tennessee’s performance on the Nation’s Report Card and ACT scores.

However, she did not address whether state funding is adequate through Tennessee’s Basic Education Program formula — a question that spawned two major lawsuits this year from eight school districts, including Memphis and Chattanooga, who feel stretched financially in implementing new state initiatives and serving vulnerable students. (Read more details about this topic in our preview of this week’s budget hearings.)

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

McQueen’s presentation is the first step of a lengthy budget process that will include a formal spending proposal by the governor and a final vote next spring by the legislature.

McQueen and Haslam are still in talks about devoting more money for teacher salaries, an expansive literacy initiative and technology in schools — especially important as the state transitions to its new online test.

“The governor has been committed to education, he’s shown that commitment through action, and we’ll continue to be committed to that activity this year,” McQueen told reporters after her presentation

Haslam’s administration devoted $51 million extra to technology in schools in 2013, and the governor said he is exploring another significant investment.

In her presentation, McQueen proposed increases that include:

BEP funding – $48 million. McQueen cited inflation and student enrollment growth as the impetus for bolstering funding via the state’s Basic Education Program, the formula through which the state pays for the bulk of K-12 education spending. Local district leaders this year have been increasingly vocal about the adequacy of BEP funding, complaining that the state is gradually shifting the responsibility to local governments. Next year’s proposed increase is comparable to this year’s BEP bump of about $44 million.

Professional development – $3.5 million. With federal money from the Race to the Top grant drying up this year, new revenue is needed to offset the state’s ongoing investments in teacher training. Much of the state’s $500 million Race to the Top grant went to training teachers around new Common Core State Standards and a new teacher evaluation system. Now that those academic standards are being reviewed and revised by order of the governor and the legislature, more professional development will be needed to prepare for their implementation in 2017. McQueen said this round won’t require the costly, large-scale summer teacher trainings of recent years. They will be conducted at the Education Department’s eight regional offices known as CORE, or Centers for Regional Excellence, with academic coaches trained in Nashville.

Assessment – $850,000. Responding to calls from teachers for more transparency around testing, a testing task force convened by McQueen recommended this summer that questions from the state’s new standardized test be released each year. But doing so will require that questions be replenished for next year’s test. McQueen said Wednesday that the costs will be somewhat offset by eliminating two standardized tests for eighth- and 10th-grade students, which was also recommended by the task force. “If we’re going to make our test questions transparent for educators and parents and students, then we’ll need to invest in funding for that opportunity,” she said. “We believe in an environment of trust and transparency, and making the questions available will create that.”

TNReady – $3.8 million. The state’s new online assessment for grades 3-11 is being implemented this year to align with Tennessee’s latest standards and focusing on more nuanced, but harder to grade questions. McQueen said the additional money is needed to roll out the new testing system.

Individualized Education Act – $350,000. Under a new law that takes effect in 2017, families with children with specific special needs can opt out of public schools and use the state’s per-pupil funding to provide educational services at home. Under the new program, the option would be open to families of about 18,000 students with severe disabilities.

Standards Review – $240,000. In January, the state is scheduled to begin reviewing social studies standards, in part because teachers have asked for a re-do, and in part because of public and political concerns raised over Tennessee’s seventh-grade world religion standards, which include learning about Islam. The review process — which will involve two online public reviews and convening a group of social studies teachers over the summer to revise the standards — will look much like the current standards review for math and English language arts.

Charter School Authorization – $125,000. For the first time, the State Board of Education will authorize two KIPP charter schools in Nashville — making the state responsible for ensuring that the charter operators fulfill promises made in their applications.

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.

School Finance

IPS bid for more money is ‘the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever,’ state official says

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry raised concerns about referendums IPS plans to ask voters to approve in May.

An Indiana education official is calling out Indianapolis Public Schools for how the district has handled a recent proposal to collect almost $1 billion from taxpayers over the next eight years.

Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education and an Indianapolis resident, said the district’s plan to ask voters this May to approve two referendums to increase funding has not been transparent. The proposed tax increase is also way too high, he said.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” Hendry, a Democrat, said Wednesday at the board’s February meeting.

So far, few education advocates or community organizations have been vocal in their support for the referendums, which total $936 million. Voters have raised concerns about the amount their taxes would increase and how the money would be spent.

The district has said one referendum would raise up to $92 million per year for eight years to pay for teacher raises, special education services, transportation and regular maintenance. The other asks voters to support $200 million in improvements to school buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security.

Hendry said the district has not provided voters with enough information about what the new money would be used for, instead offering “general statements.” He said he thinks the district should already be able to cover those costs, such as transportation and facilities, with its existing state and local funding.

“Our entire state budget for education is $7 billion each year,” he said.

IPS, like other districts, receives state, local, and federal dollars. Hendry pointed out that under Indiana’s school funding formula, urban districts already receive more money per-student than other districts, although that is supposed to support students who might be more costly to educate than those in suburban or rural districts. Urban schools typically have more students living in poverty, learning English or with disabilities.

The referendums would come with considerable tax increases for those living within IPS boundaries, Hendry said, and would disproportionately affect low-income families.

Hendry didn’t limit his criticisms to IPS. He urged Indiana lawmakers to freeze all school funding referendums and set up a committee this summer to study how to improve the efficiency of district spending, as well as how to address “long-standing” problems with ensuring teachers are adequately paid.

Going forward, Hendry said referendums need more oversight. He proposed that the state board or mayors and city councils should approve them — a measure he said would increase accountability.

More than a third of school districts have asked for tax increases since state lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2008. About 60 percent of them have been successful, including six in Marion County.