spending plans

Cuomo budget: Funds for pre-K, technology, and merit pay

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Cuomo spoke to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last month before delivering his State of the State speech. Silver is among the many lawmakers calling for a pause on Common Core consequences.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing a school spending plan that would allocate an extra $807 million in state school aid — including through a teacher merit pay program and an expansion of pre-kindergarten funding.

Cuomo outlined his education priorities during a presentation today in Albany about his proposed budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Most of the priorities are familiar, having been floated in interviews, proposed in his State of the State speech or endorsed by his education advisors in recent weeks.

But an accompanying budget bill and funding allocations added new details and dollar signs to Cuomo’s rhetoric. And although no funding came with his comments, the governor dipped his toe into the state’s controversial rollout of Common Core standards after staying silent on the issue for months.

The prominence of education initiatives in this year’s budget proposal means that they are likely to be the scene of a showdown when Cuomo and legislators hash out a final budget, which must happen by April 1. How to fund the expansion of pre-K programs will likely be the biggest battleground, but it is by no means the only one. Here are other points of interest, and possible points of contention, in Cuomo’s education budget proposal.

  • State education funding: Cuomo’s 2014-2015 budget includes $21.9 billion for the next school year, an overall increase of 3.8 percent — or $807 million, a substantially smaller school aid increase than he proposed last year. Most of the total, $682 million, would go toward a general pot of funds that gets distributed to districts through several funding streams based on their need. The sum is less than the Board of Regents’ $1 billion request and a fraction of the $1.9 billion total that some lawmakers and advocates are aggressively pushing for.
  • Pre-kindergarten: A portion of next year’s funds, $100 million, would be set aside for districts that have the capacity to add more universal kindergarten seats. It is an alternative proposal to the locally-funded tax plan proposed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said today that he would continue to push his funding strategy anyway. Cuomo’s proposal calls for an overall $1.5 billion investment in pre-K over five years, the length of de Blasio’s pre-K plan. De Blasio’s allies immediately responded by saying Cuomo’s allocation wouldn’t be enough even for New York City.
  • After-school program funding: Cuomo is also hoping to allocate $720 million in funding over five years for after school programs — tackling the other portion of de Blasio’s tax proposal. But the spending wouldn’t start until the 2015-2016 school year. De Blasio has proposed lengthening the school day for middle schools using the same tax revenue that would fund universal pre-K, beginning as soon as this fall.
  • Teacher merit pay: Teachers who receive “highly effective” ratings on their most recent evaluations would be eligible for up to $20,000 in a one-time bonus as part of a grant program — called a “Teacher Excellence Fund” — that Cuomo wants to fund with $20 million next year. According to proposed legislation, districts would be more likely to win a grant if they promise to pay top teachers to work in high-need schools, to fill high-need subject areas, or to stay in the classroom instead of leaving for another position. City and teachers union officials were cool to Cuomo’s proposal when he first aired it earlier this month.
  • Classroom technology and pre-K facilities: As he indicated in his State of the State address, Cuomo will push for the passage of a $2 billion technology bond that voters would have to approve in November. The borrowed funds would help schools upgrade and enhance their high-speed wireless capacity and purchase computers, servers, interactive whiteboards and tablets for their classrooms. A new detail today is that the bond would also fund facility construction for pre-K programs.
  • Pre-K for charter schools: Charter schools would be able to get a slice of Cuomo’s universal pre-kindergarten funding, he said today in his presentation. Cuomo’s education reform commission proposed the policy shift, which will require legislation to allow, last week, immediately drawing praise from charter school advocates.
  • Fund more P-TECHs: Cuomo wants to spend an additional $5 million next year to duplicate the much-praised model established at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn. The school model serves high-need students and partners with colleges and companies to prepare them for careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Common Core reform: It won’t show up anywhere in his proposed budget bills, but Cuomo said he’s jumping into the state’s controversial rollout of new Common Core standards. The topic has been hotly debated over the last year by state education officials and lawmakers, but Cuomo stood noticeably on the sidelines. He declined to mention the issue in his State of the State speech two weeks ago, raising eyebrows among advocates on both sides of the debate. Today, he acknowledged that the implementation “has been flawed” and said he would convene his own panel to review possible changes.
  • A ban on bubble tests: Cuomo mostly steered clear of teacher evaluations, which figured prominently into his budget plans in the last two years. But he did endorse an increasingly popular proposed ban on standardized testing for kindergarten through second grades, which some districts have used to measure student learning for teacher evaluations. The bill has already been proposed in both the Assembly and the State Senate and endorsed by the State Education Department, teachers unions, and the city education department.

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.