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Lawmakers hold out olive branch for 2015 finance debate

Nobody knows yet who’ll be in control of the 2015 Colorado legislature, but two key Democratic lawmakers are already reaching out to school superintendents, inviting them to work together on school finance issues.

The letter sent to district leaders Tuesday can be seen as a gesture to avoid some of the acrimony and bruising lobbying that marked the school finance debate during the 2014 session. (See the full letter at the bottom of this story.)

“We are asking you to work together with the legislature for both short and long term strategies to fund education,” wrote Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon and Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood. They are the chairs of the House and Senate education committees.

“It is imperative that we work together,” the letter said.

“I don’t know that we expected it, but we saw it as an opportunity,” said Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger, who’s been a leader in the superintendents’ funding push. As it happened, the influential Denver Area Superintendents’ Council met Thursday, and the letter was discussed.

“We took it as a hopeful sign that they are both sincere and interested,” Messinger said.

A Western Slope superintendent, Jason Glass of Eagle County, agreed, saying, “I think superintendents appreciate this proactive effort … to work with Colorado’s school leaders.”

Hamner and Kerr both are up for re-election in the Nov. 4 election. Hamner faces an opponent she’s beaten before and is considered likely to return to the Capitol. Kerr is in a close, contentious and high-spending race. Republicans are pushing hard to win a Senate majority, so even if Kerr wins, he’ll lose his chairmanship if the GOP takes control.

School boards and district superintendents aggressively took the initiative during the 2014 session, pushing very hard to reduce the “negative factor,” the $1 billion shortfall in K-12 spending caused by the legislature’s narrow interpretation of school funding requirements.

Some lawmakers were caught off-balance by the lobbying push, and both Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino initially opposed any cut.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo
Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Hamner and Kerr at times were caught in the middle of the fight, which finally ended with a $110 million cut in the negative factor as well as funding of some education initiatives that Hickenlooper wanted. Hamner mentioned more than once last spring how stressful the experience was. (Refresh your memory about the battle with this Chalkbeat Colorado story from last March, and get the details of how it all turned out in this article.)

In an email response to questions about this week’s letter, Hamner praised the superintendents’ involvement last winter but said she wants to do things differently next year.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

“While I fully support their decision to get more involved and to fight for funding, I believe the process can and should work better if we work together,” she wrote.

The Hamner-Kerr letter said, “With the goal of making this collaboration as effective as possible, we will be inviting you to a series of meetings we plan on hosting to discuss these matters further.”

Hamner told Chalkbeat, “I’m not certain at this time how this collaborative approach will look, but I believe that a representative group of superintendents and CFOs [chief financial officers] who are willing to work with us in studying the opportunities and challenges within our state budget could play an important role in shaping improvements to school funding in this next session.”

Unknows loom over finance issue

There are some key uncertainties that could affect 2015 school finance debates and attempts to further trim the negative factor.

The most immediate is the election. Defeat of Hickenlooper by GOP candidate Bob Beauprez and Republican takeover of one or both legislative houses could dramatically change the playing field. (Most observers expect Democrats to retain House control, however.)

A new financial factor – the possibility that state will have to pay tax refunds under the terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – could make it harder for lawmakers to increase school funding significantly. (Get details in this story.)

And a recent lawsuit, filed by a group of parents and districts, challenges the constitutionality of the negative factor and is pending in Denver District Court (details on that here).

“We understand there’s a lot in play right now,” Messigner said, adding that school finance remains the top priority for superintendents.

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.

School Finance

School health clinics could take a hit under rule to restrict green cards for immigrants who receive public aid

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

One student stands out in Dr. Viju Jacob’s mind when he thinks about all the patients he’s seen in his 15 years at school-based health clinics: a Central American immigrant enrolled at a Bronx high school in 2012.

The student did not have insurance, which Jacob said is common for new immigrants, but the clinic offers free care regardless of a student’s immigration or insurance status. That’s thanks to Medicaid funding from other students’ claims.

Over the next four years, the student returned to the clinic, located in his school, when he needed a physical or simple treatment. But it wasn’t just his physical health that improved.

“He got a lot of soft emotional support,” Jacob said. “Coming to us, having people who spoke his language or his native language to sort of encourage him, help him with filling out forms.”

Jacob and immigrant advocates worry students like this may not get the support they need under a new federal proposal that would make it tougher for immigrants to successfully seek green cards if they rely on public benefits.

“Especially in New York City and in the New York City public school system, a large portion of the student population in some shape or form is on Medicaid or Medicaid managed care,” Jacob said. “That is such a large pool that could be affected if this rule gets implemented.”

To receive a green card, immigrants currently have to prove they won’t be a burden on the government, so officials already consider the cash benefits that they receive when reviewing applications. But now, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand the rule so that green cards can be denied to immigrants who rely on benefits such as  non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D, food stamps or forms of housing assistance.

Researchers and immigration advocates believe that even though a final decision on the proposal is months away, news of this rule could persuade large swaths of immigrants to halt their public benefits, out of fear it will affect their ability to become permanent U.S. residents. In a recent analysis, the city estimated that 75,000 New York City immigrants may have to choose between benefits and a green card.

And fewer Medicaid enrollees means fewer dollars rolling into clinics that serve at least 387 schools across the system, since they operate through partnerships with healthcare providers and depend, in part, on Medicaid funding that students may claim. It’s too early to tell the exact impact, but advocates, analysts, and even the federal government have acknowledged that the rule change could result in loss of funding.

“It’s bad enough for the families, and it’s even worse for us because we rely heavily on that funding stream,” said Jacob.

Clinics were a big part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term education agenda, which involved providing more schools with wrap-around services.

“Taking away services that keep children well-fed and healthy is wrong,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We’ll continue to ensure that our children, regardless of their and their family’s immigration status, have the resources they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

It’s not clear how many children are enrolled in the school-based clinics or how many, on average, use them. The city’s Department of Education didn’t respond to requests for comment about the rule change, including what portion of Medicaid funds buoy school health clinics, which are run by medical centers, local hospitals and community organizations. 

According to Jacob, who is also board chairman of New York School Based Health Alliance, it’s typical for clinics to receive between two-thirds to half of their funding from Medicaid. The rule is expected to threaten the livelihood of similar clinics in other states, such as Colorado.

If enough people pull out of Medicaid, clinics could seek specific grant funding instead, Jacob said.

This is the latest immigration issue that New York City’s top education officials have had to grapple with. In the past, they’ve been quick to respond, such as reassuring families that their information is safe with the school system. Last year, a school in Queens turned federal immigration agents away after they showed up and asked about a fourth-grader. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was an administrative inquiry.)

Last March, the school system updated guidance for principals on immigration issues, stating that only local law enforcement can enter a school unless without a warrant or unless imminent harm is expected.

The Department of Homeland Security touts its proposal by saying its primary benefit would “help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.”

The rule change wouldn’t include free and reduced-price lunch, which is universal in New York City. The rule also wouldn’t apply to families making less than 15 percent of the federal poverty level, refugees, asylum-seekers, legal immigrants in the military or immigrants who receive assistance after natural disasters.

Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a “chilling effect” could even dissuade people who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is not included in the proposal, from continuing to receive the benefit. Other analyses come to a similar conclusion, including a June report from by the Migrant Policy Institute.

“In theory people should understand that they don’t need to disenroll their child from benefits because that’s not going to affect them,” said Mike Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which did an analysis of the “chilling effect” this rule could have. “In practice it may still have that effect because this is very complicated, and we’re operating in an environment of so much fear and uncertainty.”

Beyond clinics losing funding, immigrant parents might be too scared to let their children go to an in-school clinic. Advocates said there is a fear among immigrants over what information government institutions are collecting and how it could be used against them.

Christina Samuels, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said her organization has raised these concerns with the education department, which has said it would protect families’ information. School health clinics don’t ask about immigration status.

In Jacob’s experience, students of different ages use the school health clinics for different reasons. Elementary-school students tend to show up because their parents’ work hours are at odds with doctors’ appointment times, and they can’t afford to take a day off. Those children may have an injury looked at, receive treatment for a stomach ache, or get an immunization.

Middle-schoolers usually get their shots or physicals, and some start to ask about reproductive health. And in high school, students receive a number of services, and preventative and emergency contraception may be addressed.

Outside organizations help staff counselors and social workers at some city schools, which staffers say are already stretched thin. Those, too, could also see more demand as students lose reliable access to food and healthcare, Samuels said.

She also pointed to the mental stress on immigrant students digesting another immigrant-related proposal out of Washington, such as  the proposed ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.

“Now we’re getting into a period where we’re really concerned about the mental health and behavioral health of students,” Samuels said.

City Hall officials have blasted the proposed rule, but have also cautioned that no changes have gone into effect. In a recent press conference, De Blasio said President Donald Trump is trying to “hurt the very people who are contributing to our economy and our future. It makes no sense and we are going to fight it.”

Last week, the federal government opened a 60-day period that allows public comment on its rule. After that, officials will take another 60 days to make a final decision.