on the money

As state testing nears, city directs $10 million to tutoring

Nearly six months after the city saw students’ failure rates spike thanks to new, tougher state tests, Mayor Bloomberg is directing extra funding to ready those students for another round of exams.

The mayor announced today that the Department of Education will distribute $10 million to 532 schools where more than two-thirds of students failed the state’s math and English tests last year. The funding will target nearly half of the more than 100,000 students who did not meet the state’s newly heightened proficiency bar. Bloomberg said he expected 48,000 students to receive extra tutoring and in-school help as a result of the new funding.

DOE officials said schools should receive the money by February 8. Principals will be able to spend it on weekend classes, lessons after school, tutoring during the school day, and online programs that will help students cram for the upcoming exams. They will have to race to spend it in time for it to have an effect, as the English and math exams will be administered in early May.

Chancellor Cathie Black cautioned that the new funding does not mean that the department’s budget woes are over. The city is waiting to find out how large the state’s budget cut will be and Bloomberg said he still expects to have to lay off teachers this year. But the $10 million was a modest enough figure that he said the city would be able to cover it.

“This should not be taken as a signal that more money is the answer to all of our problems,” Black said.

“Our best schools are already doing more with less and leveraging resources in a way that benefits our children. But we also recognize that some of those schools need extra help right now.”

When asked why the funding was coming mid-year, the mayor was vague.

“New chancellor!” he said, smiling, then abruptly changed tack. “We’re constantly trying to come up with new things,” he said. “And we’re always sitting there worrying about what’s going to happen to the budget.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she’d met with former Chancellor Joel Klein in October to press the issue, after the Coalition for Educational Justice had brought it to her attention. But criticism of the DOE’s minimal response to the high failure rate began to build much earlier. In a statement sent to reporters today, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said that he’d been asking the DOE to give extra help to these students for the last six months.

In July, when the scores were released, the city’s passing rate on the reading exam fell from 68.8 percent 42.4 percent. On the math test, the passing rate fell from 81.8 percent to 54 percent.

At the time, Klein said that schools would give struggling students “extra attention,” but didn’t say how. In September he announced that schools would be allowed to convert one period of tutoring time into teacher planning sessions aimed at boosting scores.

“It was so obvious that we had a problem,” said teachers union president Michael Mulgrew today. “Something had to be done; this is a start.”

Schools will receive a portion of the funding based on how many more of their students failed the exams last year than the year before. The largest amount any one school can get will be $65,000 and the smallest will be $6,000.

Eight schools will receive the largest amount: P.S. 144 (Bronx), MS 113 (Brooklyn), JHS 88 (Brooklyn), MS 61 (Brooklyn), East New York Middle School of Excellence (Brooklyn), JHS 78 (Brooklyn), IS 61 (Queens), and IS 61 (Staten Island).

More than half of the schools that are eligible for the extra funding are in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Manhattan is home to 102 of them, Queens to 54 and Staten Island to 13.

School Allocation Summary

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.