School Finance

State Board approves $1M shift of low-income funding to Dougco

In an attempt to better match federal funds with the students the money is supposed to help, the state is piloting a program that will re-direct more than half a million dollars to the relatively wealthy Douglas County Schools.

The State Board of Education this week voted 6-1 to approve a pilot program under which the suburban school district will receive an additional $547,072 in federal Title I money next year to provide services for poor students.

The two-year pilot is intended to account for students who attend the HOPE Online Learning Academy – Elementary but who live in other districts that now receive the Title I funding for those children. The $547,072 is the estimated shift of funds in 2014-15. A similar amount likely would be allocated in 2015-16.

The plan drew vocal opposition from board member Elaine Gantz Berman at Wednesday’s meeting, and district leaders who stand to lose money aren’t happy either.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Berman said. Dougco “is the ninth wealthiest county in the United States. … I can’t in good conscience vote for this. I can’t take money away from Greeley and Aurora and DPS.”

Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton Public Schools, told Chalkbeat Colorado that what CDE is doing “is absolutely the right conversation and absolutely the wrong solution.” Mapleton would lose $5,188 from its estimated $1.2 million Title I allocation.

“Five thousand dollars in a district our size is significant,” Ciancio said.

The four districts taking the biggest hits are Denver ($169,733), Aurora ($143,970), Adams 12-Five Star ($45,868) and Westminster ($45,905). See the list of districts that will lose money and the amounts here.

Summing up the dilemma, state school finance director Leanne Emm told the board, “It’s a zero sum game.”

The problem

The problem CDE is trying to address was created because Title I funding allocations are based on geography – primarily poverty rates within U.S. Census tracts and welfare caseloads. But students enrolled in online schools like HOPE live in many different districts, 21 districts in HOPE’s case.

In the bureaucratic words of a document presented to the board Wednesday, “Current methods for allocating Title I, Part A funds do not always accurately reflect where students are receiving services. Given the changing landscape of educational opportunities for students, studying the impacts of revising allocation methods will provide information necessary to make informed decisions moving forward.” (See the full presentation here.)

Although HOPE Online is authorized by the Dougco district, “very few of those kids live in Douglas County,” Keith Owen, deputy commissioner of education, told Chalkbeat Colorado in an interview. About 1,000 HOPE elementary students live outside the district.

“HOPE and Douglas County have been asking the department” for action on the issue for a number of years, Owen said, but no solution seemed workable until the idea for the pilot program came up. Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl indicated to the board he believes the program meets federal requirements.

The additional funds won’t necessarily go to HOPE but rather will allow Dougco to provide Title I funding for resident students in its own schools.

Owen told the board that Dougco’s current $1.2 million Title I allocation goes to HOPE and to certain set-asides like funding for homeless students. “They [the district] don’t serve other schools currently,” he said.

The bureaucratic backstory

Title I is massively complicated, and a major issue is that while overall district funding is determined by census-determined poverty rates, money is distributed to schools based on different criteria, usually the number of students eligible for free lunch or for both free and reduced-price lunch.

Ciancio, in a letter to the board urging rejection of the pilot project, noted that census-based poverty calculations indicate 1,486 Mapleton children are in poverty, but it has 4,287 free-lunch students. (Read the letter here.)

“We contend that the [Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates are] seriously underestimating the true impact of children in poverty in some districts,” she wrote. (SAIPE is the federal acronym for the census poverty calculation.)

On top of that, Title I funds come in four subcategories, for which districts have different levels of eligibility.

And, beyond a requirement that schools with 75 percent or more at-risk students get Title I funding, districts have latitude in how they spend the money. Some give it just to elementary schools, for instance.

“There’s never enough money to serve every student,” Owen said.

The complexity and the flexibility lead to varying amounts of Title I funding among districts. Owen said Dougco is spending $758 per eligible HOPE student. Berman said the DPS per-student amount is $438. Within a district, some schools may receive no Title I money, even if they serve some poor students.

See the list of all Colorado schools with their 2012-13 Title I status here (link downloads PDF).

The proposed solution

CDE developed criteria for online schools that could be eligible for the pilot, including minimum numbers of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, having a significantly higher percentage of such students than the authorizing district and participation in the federal school meal program. Of all the programs considered, only HOPE met all the criteria. It’s the only such school to participate in the meal program at its learning centers.

Owen said CDE will monitor use of the funds, including the strategies implemented for poor students, the impact on districts that lost funding and how to effectively use Title I funds in a multi-district online school. “A pilot gives us the opportunity to look at the impact,” he said.

Commissioner Robert Hammond told the board, “Ultimately the lessons learned could lead to statewide changes.”

In her letter, Ciancio wrote, “In our assessment, taking resources from one severely underfunded, highly impacted school district to support another underfunded school district feels inappropriate and unjust.”

She continued, “We ask you to charge the Colorado Department of Education to go back to the drawing board to find a solution that equitably funds districts and considers each child.”

She suggested that a more uniform way to allocate per-student funding could be developed by the state.

Owen told the board that such a statewide change might be possible but “is a massive undertaking” that CDE doesn’t have the capacity to handle now.

Shifting of Title I funds away from districts isn’t unprecedented. The state-run Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs and schools supervised by the Charter School Institute receive Title I funds based on their students’ districts of residence.

HOPE’s elementary program enrolls about 1,750 students, more than 60 percent eligible for free lunch. The school is in its fourth year at the priority improvement rating, Owen said. That’s the second lowest level in the state accountability system, and schools remaining at the level for five years are subject to state interventions including closure. (See the accountability report on all three HOPE schools here).

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.