School Finance

Hick education advisors chew on A66 defeat

The comments ranged from determined to glum Thursday as members of the Education Leadership Council dissected the defeat of Amendment 66.

Businesswoman Barbara Grogan said to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, “The needs are still there, the system is still broken. So now what, Joe?”

Barbara Grogan (left) and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia
Barbara Grogan (left) and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

“I don’t have answers,” said Garcia, who chairs the council, an appointed group of about three-dozen state executives, education officials and business leaders. Thursday’s session was the group’s first meeting since the Nov. 5 election at which voters overwhelmingly rejected the K-12 income tax increase proposed in A66.

Sen. Mike Johnston said, “I don’t think any of the goals changed. The question is how you work within the constraints. If there’s a new game with new rules we’ll have to figure it out.” The Denver Democrat was a key backer of the amendment and author of its companion legislation, Senate Bill 13-213.

Garcia promised that despite the loss, the Hickenlooper administration remains “committed to implementation of Senate Bill 191” and other education laws already on the books and to “enhance early childhood education in any way possible.”

Picking up on that comment, Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, asked, “Are we still able to do those things well … with fidelity, with assurance that they’re going to be done in the right way?” Salazar also noted that adding any new programs for schools to implement “may cause a bit of a revolt in the education community.”

School districts statewide this year are using new content standards, implementing the new early literacy law, testing the SB 10-191 evaluation system for the first time and preparing for new statewide tests that will debut in 2015.

Margaret Carlson, president of the Summit County school board, said, “Some of them [teachers] do feel like they’re drowning,” adding, “Hopefully there’s going to be a next time” to seek an increase in education funding.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, was glum about the next time. “The odds of getting the voters of Colorado to approve a general tax increase are very low,” saying he was discouraged about the prospects for fixing the fiscal constraints and conflicts in the state constitution.

Members of the group were a mostly A66 supporters. Piping up “as the token Republican in the room,” Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock said, “I think the graduated tax was a real problem for businesspeople, and I think they felt picked on” by the two-step income tax increase proposed in A66. “I heard that from businesspeople who really want to help education.”

Helayne Jones, head of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, sounded the same note, saying, “I think the message [of the election] was not that much about education” but was about the structure of the tax increase.

Jones had perhaps the most interesting comment of the afternoon, noting that conservative majorities took control of school boards in Jefferson County and the Thompson district. That may have been the most important development from the election, she said, adding, “Conservative school boards will do more damage to the reform agenda than anything else.”

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson joined the discussion at that point, noting an energized minority of voters changed the direction of the Jeffco board. “That’s a factor we need to keep in mind in the future.” (Stevenson announced her retirement two days after the election; see this EdNews story for details.)

The council also batted around other issues, including Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2014-15 education budget and the possibility of teacher licensing legislation being introduced during the 2014 session. (See this story for background on the budget plan, and this article for the latest on the licensing discussion.)

Jones also had a provocative comment about licensing. “How does that legislation come forth in a way that doesn’t come across as a burden and open a door for educators to back away from” from other reforms, like teacher evaluation. “I think there are people looking for a way to back away.”

David Archer, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s education policy advisor, said, “It’s certainly something that we’re all trying to be very mindful of.”

Johnston argued that the goal of licensing reform is to streamline the process and figure out “how do we get the state out of the way.”

Jones cautioned “that message is going to be really, really important.”


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.