Funding fight truce

“It’s haircut day” for school finance bills

A House-Senate conference committee on Monday nipped and tucked various elements of the 2014-15 School Finance Act and snapped up about $30 million in federal mineral revenues for school spending, reaching a compromise in the dispute over how to pay for a stack of this year’s education bills.

The compromise version of House Bill 14-1298 passed 5-1 and must now be approved by both the House and Senate.

Although some lobbyists were working as late as Monday morning trying to avoid some program cuts, the compromise plan is expected to gain final approval without much more contention. The controversy surfaced late last week (see this story for details). Lawmakers have to adjourn Wednesday.

The goal of the compromise is to reduce the amount of money to be taken from the State Education Fund, a dedicated account that’s used for both general K-12 support and for special programs.

The compromise plan would leave about $660 million in the fund at the end of 2014-15, the target that the Hickenlooper administration wants. Without the cuts and shifts in the compromise plan, the balance would be $612 million, said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and the architect of the compromise plan.

He said the plan is designed “to make sure we leave the State Education Fund with a sufficient balance to fulfill the commitments we’ve made in the future. … There’s a lot of pressure on the fund; one of our objectives is to trim back a little bit.”

“There are several programs getting a haircut,” said Steadman, who came to the conference committee with the plan in hand. The meeting lasted less than 15 minutes. Steadman, a prime sponsor of the finance act, also is vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee and one of the legislature’s fiscal experts.

Here’s how various elements of the bill (and some related measures) fared in the barber’s chair.

Negative factor: The proposed buy-down of the state’s $1 billion K-12 funding shortfall remains at $110 million. School districts have fought ferociously this session to whittle down the negative factor, and any attempt to tinker with this number would have ignited a political and lobbying firestorm.

Kindergarten support: The Senate added $10 million to the bill to slightly increase the amount the state pays for kindergarten students, which is .58 of per-pupil funding for other students. Steadman’s plan cuts the $10 million. Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, suggested $5 million, but the conference committee didn’t agree. Eliminating the increase was “a bit more than a haircut,” Kerr complained. He was the only no vote on the compromise plan.

English language learners: The conference committee approved a $27 million increase in funding for ELL programs, trimming the $30 million originally in the bill.

Early literacy funding: The conference committee approved an $18 million increase to the $16 million currently spent on the READ Act, cutting by $2 million the original plan for a $20 million boost. (This spending actually is in House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, but it’s possible to change that with language by amending HB 14-1298.)

Counselor Corps: This program will get only $3 million in additional funding, not the $5 million contained in Senate Bill 14-150. (The program’s current funding is $5 million.) This also is being changed through HB 14-1298, like the literacy funding.

What makes the whole plan work is use of $30.4 million from yet another account, the State Public School Fund, replacing money that would have come from the education fund. Steadman said budget analysts discovered last week that the $30.4 million, generated by federal mineral lease revenues, was available.

Several other separate bills that proposed taking money from education fund already have had their own haircuts, but the amounts of money involved are relatively small.

Two other significant pieces of HB 14-1292 were removed earlier in the intense and prolonged negotiations around school funding. They were a $40 million fund to help districts implement new programs like standards, testing and evaluations and $10 million for implementation of the average daily membership method of counting school enrollment.

There was significant controversy late in the session over a part of HB 14-1292 that proposed creation of a state website containing searchable information about school and district spending. School districts had opposed the plan, but a compromise approved by both houses last week budgets $3 million for the website and removes some requirements that districts didn’t like. (Get more details in this story.)

Several smaller spending elements of the Success Act and the Finance Act weren’t caught in the “haircuts” and remain in the bills. Major items include:

  • A $17 million increase for at-risk preschool and full-day kindergarten students, enough to fund 5,000 more students.
  • Up to $11.5 million in charter facilities funding, plus a $6.5 million infusion for a charter school bond program.
  • $2 million in additional funding for boards of cooperative educational services to help small districts implement reforms.

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.

Living wages

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.