state of play

With elections over, superintendents to push for more money from Hick, legislature

PHOTO: Chalkbeat File Photo
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was narrowly re-elected Tuesday. Superintendents who spoke with Chalkbeat said they plan on asking him and the state house for more funding with few earmarks.

Colorado’s electorate might be as polarized as ever, but the state’s superintendents are finding plenty of consensus on how the state funds its schools. Or, as they see it, how the state doesn’t fund its schools enough.

“The number one concern is state funding. After that it’s testing and everything else,” said Bruce Messinger, Boulder Valley’s superintendent, in a post-Election Day interview.

And now, with a better understanding of who will shape the state’s next budget, those school leaders intend to make their frustrations known loud and clear.

Superintendents from across the state plan to send a letter to the governor and General Assembly outlining their recommendations for the next budget cycle. The letter is expected to be signed by most — if not all — of the state’s superintendents.

In that letter, which should arrive before the start of the next legislative session in January, the superintendents will ask Colorado’s lawmakers to both restore the estimated $900 million the state owes its schools and provide more funding targeted to the state’s neediest and rural students, multiple superintendents said.

The letter will also request that the state hand over the tax dollars without earmarks specifying how the money should be spent.

“The state doesn’t know what we cut, so how do they know what to give back?” said Mark Hale, superintendent of Montrose and Olathe schools.

School funding has been contentious in Colorado for some time. During the Great Recession, the legislature had to juggle constitutional requirements to fund education and balance its budget. To do so, it created the “negative factor,” which led to about a billion dollar in cuts.

“It’s very important that we invest in our kids and in our schools,” said Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent. “Right now we continue to be one of the lowest-funding states in the country.”

Boasberg said the lack of funding hasn’t helped any school district boost student achievement, especially those school districts with a large population of students of color and those who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices. If anything, he said, the lack of funds has made the work more difficult.

As the economy has recovered, schools have begun to see more money. Some of those funds, however, have been only been provided to fulfill projects created by legislators. For example, earlier this year the legislature provided school districts money to create websites to report how individual schools spend their revenues.

“We’d really like to see our voice back — the way its been going, it’s been to have accountability at the local level but decision making at the (legislative) level,” Hale said. “There’s a disconnect there.”

While superintendents are fed up, they are optimistic about a recovering economy and what appears to be a willingness to collaborate on the part of state officials.

Prior to the election, Democratic lawmakers extended a sort of olive branch to superintendents inviting them to work together on school finance issues. And in his first draft of the 2015-16 budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed an increase in student funding. But those extra dollars wouldn’t be guaranteed in the future.

“It’s a good starting place,” Hale said. “Maybe [Hickenlooper] is a little serious about giving us due consideration.”

The superintendents plan to send their letter outside the auspice of any formal organization. The process, they said, has been organic. Clusters of superintendents have been meeting off and on at different retreats for months. But the school leaders have decided there is strength in numbers.

“We’re a much more unified voice,” said Pat Sanchez, superintendent of Adams 14. “And we want to have a stronger voice at the legislature — like we used to have.”

They also decided that they can’t waste energy fighting among themselves and their respective priorities.

“There’s a saying, ‘the cure for Denver is often the disease of Montrose,'” Hale said. “[But] I don’t want to fight with Douglas County or Cherry Creek.”

That’s one just another reason why district officials want more control over how they spend tax dollars.

“There needs to be recognition that there are different needs between large schools and rural schools,” said Dan McMinimee, superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools. “On the eastern plains, they may have issues like infrastructure. They might have to hire more people. Here we might need technology and books, or to build new schools. The question is, how can we put together a package that we all want and need, knowing that each district is different. The bottom line: We want to make those decisions locally.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

State takeover plans for Gary and Muncie could be revived as Indiana lawmakers return in May

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed reporters Monday. He's asking lawmakers to return for a special session in May.

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse this May after an unusual summons Monday from Gov. Eric Holcomb, and it’s possible they could revisit a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

But Holcomb said the takeover plan should not be pushed through during a special session and should be acted upon next year. It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers held a special session in a non-budget year.

“I would prefer to wait,” Holcomb said. “I don’t believe that it rises to the level of urgency to be dealt with right now.”

The regular legislative session ended in chaos last week, with lawmakers leaving this and several other important bills unresolved when the clock ran out.

Republican lawmakers have been largely supportive of the takeover plan, and so they could revive the issue despite Holcomb’s stance. Holcomb said discussions would happen this week over what issues could be addressed during the special session.

House Bill 1315 sparked heated debate right up until the final minutes of the 2018 legislative session. The bill would have given control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and stripped power from the Gary school board. Another part of the bill would have developed an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

On Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill was one of the important issues left on the table when the legislature had to adjourn.

But Senate President David Long also noted that the bill has been massively unpopular in some circles — Democrats were strongly opposed to it, as were teachers unions and some educators and community members.

Both Republican leaders said in statements Monday that they supported the governor’s special session request. But John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, derided the move as wasteful and a reflection of lawmakers’ inability to finish their work on time.

“Republican leadership incompetently steered session into a wall on the last lap,” Zody said in a statement. “Now they’re asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another shot at passing their do-nothing agenda.”

Holcomb said his biggest priorities during the special session would be getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund to Muncie schools to deal with financial difficulties stemming from declining enrollment and mismanagement of a bond issue. That loan was originally a provision in the House bill.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday morning that she also would support action to get Muncie schools the money they were promised. McCormick also said the early warning system could be helpful to prevent these situations in the future.

“We want Muncie to be successful,” McCormick said, adding that anything the state can do to be proactive “and get people help so we’re not dealing with more Muncies and Garys” is a good thing.

The special session could come with a steep price tag for Indiana taxpayers. Micah Vincent, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said early estimates for calling lawmakers back into session could be about $30,000 per day. But that cost “is dwarfed by the cost of inaction,” Holcomb said. It’s unclear how long the special session could last.

The governor also said he wanted to prioritize school safety legislation, another measure that didn’t get final votes before time ran out. He is calling for lawmakers to direct $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

His plan comes in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty members were killed last month.

The shooting also sparked activism across the country, with thousands of students protesting against gun violence in schools and calling for stricter gun regulations. Last Wednesday, many Hoosier students joined the national movement by walking out of school.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.