Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers: Increase education spending, but keep courts out of school funding debate

PHOTO: Flickr

State legislators easily passed a bill Tuesday to increase funding for public education next year, while also voting narrowly in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give judges less say over school funding.

The House Administration and Planning Committee unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, which would increase education funding by $261 million including more investments in technology, teacher salaries, and English language learners. The bill also would codify the state’s funding formula, which has been in flux for more than two decades, with three court decisions spurring the legislature to overhaul the way it funds public schools.

The committee then voted 7-5 in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution to emphasize the General Assembly’s role in setting education policy. The sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, says the amendment, which eventually would require a referendum vote by Tennesseans, is designed to block “tyrannical” judges from demanding certain education policies, including possibly more funding.

Dunn cited Kansas as an example of courts overstepping their bounds. There, a 2014 State Supreme Court ruling identified unconstitutional disparities among school districts and ordered the legislature to address them by a July 1 deadline. Then a lower court recently ruled that the law put in place by the Kansas legislature to fix the disparities is inadequate.

“We see across the country that there are judges stepping in saying no, we’re going to make the policy for our school system,” Dunn said.

Dunn was pressed on students’ rights to an equitable education by Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, who credits his public school education in part to increased school funding that resulted from court orders. Dunn responded that he supported past lawsuits that led the legislature to boost education funding, but is concerned about potential judicial overreach in the future.

It’s not clear how either the proposed constitutional amendment, or the governor’s proposed budget, would impact two current school funding lawsuits against the state filed by school boards in Shelby and Hamilton counties, along with six smaller districts.

Dunn said he has not yet received a response from the state attorney general about how the proposed amendment would affect the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in a court ruling that led the legislature to craft Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) in 1992, as well as the 2002 lawsuit that prompted BEP 2.0.

The legislature passed BEP 2.0 in 2007 but, because of the Great Recession, it has never been fully funded. Instead, Tennessee has been using a hybrid of the two BEP formulas. The administration’s bill, based on two years of review, proposes to stick with that hybrid.

“We’ve taken a really focused effort to look at the way we distribute the dollars,” said Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of education. “In the end, when we looked at the outcomes, we really feel like what we’ve been doing the past nine years is an appropriate way to distribute the dollars.”

But that likely won’t appease districts seeking more money and changes to the funding formula. In March, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in education inequality across the state. The state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education, an argument that likely would be bolstered under the proposed constitutional amendment.

Shelby County Schools’ lawsuit maintains that the state doesn’t provide enough funding for its most vulnerable students.

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Despite the legal questions, Smith told lawmakers that districts should rejoice over education spending increases. Districts would get $178 million more for teacher salaries than the amount guaranteed by BEP 2.0, he said. Smith added that the budget bill mandates that districts who pay teachers below the state average spend money allotted for teacher pay on actual salaries, not insurance costs, so teachers can feel the difference.

“This is a record investment for education,” Smith said.

Both Dunn’s amendment resolution and the budget proposal will be heard next in the House Finance Committee.

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.