School Finance

State revenues remain on steady course; K-12 funding debate looms

New state revenue forecasts don’t significantly change the amount of money available to spend on K-12 schools, the issue expected to dominate education debates during the upcoming legislative session.

The quarterly revenue forecasts issued Friday also included the annual projections on school enrollment provided by legislative economists.

Statewide school enrollment projections show increases of 1.5 percent in 2014-15 and another 1.4 percent the following year. Assessed property values are expected to rise 2.2 percent next year, 5.9 percent in 2015 and 2.9 percent in 2016.

Enrollment is important for school districts because it’s the key factor in determining how much state funding they receive. And growth in property values influences how much money districts can raise locally.

Overall, “Colorado’s economy is continuing to expand and should see solid growth through the remainder of 2013 and 2014,” said the forecast from Legislative Council staff economists.

The projection from the executive branch Office of State Planning and Budget also cited growth but noted, “The economy is always vulnerable to adverse, often unexpected, events that could strain budget conditions.”

Economic activity drives state tax revenues, and both forecasts see little change in revenues from September’s predictions. The December forecast sets the table for budget discussions during the first part of the 2014 legislative session, and the March forecast drives final budget decisions.

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Natalie Mullis, chief legislative economist, told lawmakers, “Right now is when you have the greatest budget flexibility,” because in future years automatic diversions to transportation and constitutionally required tax refunds may limit spending on other programs.

The December forecast is closely watched by the education community because it includes a school finance projection from legislative staff.

Economist Todd Herreid’s presentation to the Joint Budget Committee laid out these key projections:

  • To maintain current 2013-14 per-pupil funding of $6,652, lawmakers will need to add $55 million to the budget to account for enrollment growth higher than projected last spring, when the budget was written.
  • Schools will need an increase of $260 million over current spending of about $5.5 billion to cover 2014-15 enrollment growth and inflation, as required by the state constitution. That would take average per-pupil funding to $6,845.
  • The increase would have to rise to $297 million if lawmakers want to maintain what’s called the “negative factor” at current levels.

The negative factor is a formula lawmakers have used in recent years to keep K-12 funding at a level necessary to balance the overall state budget. It’s estimated that use of the factor has left school funding at least $1 billion lower than it would have been otherwise.

School districts and education interest groups are going to push hard to reduce the amount of the negative factor, something that might meet resistance from the Hickenlooper administration and the JBC because of their concerns about pressuring other parts of the state budget and about creating a level of K-12 spending that could be vulnerable to cuts during future downturns.

During a pre-session meeting with reporters Thursday, Hickenlooper said he was open to discussions about reducing the negative factor but didn’t indicate how high he might be willing to go.

A key focus of negative factor debates will be the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used to support both base school funding and special programs.

Map
Map shows projected enrollment changes by district. (Click for larger view.)

Because some recent state surpluses have been channeled into the fund, it’s expected to have a balance of more than $1 billion this year. That’s a tempting target for lawmakers interested both in trimming the negative factor and in funding pet projects. But the JBC and the administration want to carry a reasonable State Education Fund balance into future budget years as a cushion.

The legislative staff enrollment projections show continuation of regional differences that have existed for several years.

While statewide growth is projected at 1.4 percent, growth of 1.7 percent is forecast for Denver-area districts, and 1.6 percent is expected for the northern Front Range, while several rural areas are expected to see very small or no enrollment growth.

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.

About 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.

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.

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 as of midday Tuesday, it wasn’t clear how long the repairs would take and whether or not school would be back in session tomorrow.

“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 broiler repairs on their own.

“We are not working with SCS because they don’t handle HVAC issues that are less than $25,000” maintenance director, Erica Williams told Chalkbeat in an email.

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.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.