Funding fight

Dougco threatens state in enrollment count dispute

Leaders of the Douglas County School District say they’ll sue the Colorado Department of Education in a $4.2 million dispute over counting of high school enrollment.

The district took the spat public with a news release Thursday, two days after outgoing education Commissioner Robert Hammond responded to a district appeal in the matter.

Also on Thursday, school board President Kevin Larsen and Vice President Doug Benevento sent an accusatory and polemical letter to Hammond, writing, “We intend to pursue our remedies in the Colorado courts with all deliberate speed.”

The letter said the district “rejects the Department’s position as arbitrary, capricious and not the result of reasoned agency decision-making.”

The Larsen-Benevento letter also claimed CDE’s actions in the enrollment dispute “convey the unmistakable whiff of policy retaliation” because of district/department differences over other, unrelated matters.

Department spokeswoman Dana Smith responded, “We don’t really know what they’re referring to here, but this issue is a matter of state law. We are required to implement that.”

The department annually audits a selection of school districts to compare student enrollment against the amount of state funding allocated. Districts that received more funding than supported by enrollment data are asked to pay money back to the state. Whether students were properly classified as part-time or full-time is a common issue in the audits. Larger districts usually are audited more frequently than small ones.

The department has billed Dougco, interest free, for $4.2 million, money that was provided for a few hundred high school students CDE believes were inaccurately classified as full-time.

Behind the disagreement

The dispute focuses primarily on the interpretation of full-time and part-time and on the extent of CDE discretion in the matter.

The district news release claims, “The students involved in the audit averaged 96.7 percent of the required seat time, making it illogical and unreasonable for CDE to reduce annual funding for those specific students by half.”

The letter from the two school board members also argues, “The department clearly has the lawful discretion to make any funding reductions proportionate to the time for which the department’s audit could not account in district documents.”

But Hammond’s Tuesday letter to Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Fagan noted, “There is no provision in state law to allow for proportional funding – students are either considered full-time or part-time. … Full-time funding is based upon a student having a schedule for 360 hours, and part-time funding is available for students with schedules greater than 90 hours but less than 360 hours in the first semester.”

In contrast to district claims that CDE didn’t use its discretion properly, Hammond’s letter noted that CDE did reconsider the classification of some students and reduced the amount owed by the district. “If the traditional calculation was applied in this audit, the district liability would have increased by approximately $737,000, resulting in a total audit liability of over $5.3 million.” The audit involved the fall enrollment counts for 2012 and 2013.

The disagreement appears to be rooted in counting changes and problems sparked by the district’s decision to increase the number of periods in high school schedules.

Other district claims

The Larsen-Benevento letter fired several broadsides at the department, including:

“We intend to work expeditiously with the General Assembly to divest the department of the discretion that the department has either failed to exercise here at all or, to the extent it has exercised any discretion, has done so with such obvious incompetence and backward thinking.”

The letter also said, “It is hard to believe that, in this age of nearly constant learning through technology … the department still employs a vast bureaucracy of well-pensioned employees who seriously spend valuable time – at taxpayer expense – tallying the number of minutes that a student sits in a seat, rather than the results achieved by that student.”

Current state law contains no provisions that tie individual student performance to school funding.

Hammond is retiring, so the dispute going forward will be in the hands of Interim Commissioner Elliott Asp.

Associate Commissioner Leanne Emm said full-time problems are “a very typical audit finding. … This happens to be an uncommonly larger finding because they had an issue with so many students.”

Department also in enrollment dispute with Sheridan

The department was sued by the Sheridan school district last March in a $1 million disagreement over high school students that CDE believes weren’t eligible for state funding because they also were taking classes at Arapahoe Community College.

The state asked Sheridan to repay nearly $1 million, and the district went to court, asking that the repayment requirement be voided. The suit is pending in Denver District Court. (Get more information in this previous Chalkbeat Colorado story.)

The Sheridan case doesn’t involve the full-time/part-time issue but rather the question of funding concurrent enrollment students – those taking both high school and college classes.

Emm said CDE doesn’t have any similar disputes currently pending with other districts.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.