What's the way forward?

Education leaders put on brave face in wake of Supreme Court ruling

Colorado education leaders say they will continue fighting for stronger education funding at the Capitol and perhaps at the ballot box following a Supreme Court ruling upholding the state’s current finance system.

But supporters of more funding face steep hurdles in their quest, based on the state budget situation and past history.

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to the so-called negative factor, a formula the legislature uses to reduce annual school funding.

The decision in the Dwyer v. State lawsuit pretty much dashes the last hope for a sweeping fix to the tight funding situation that has vexed district leaders since 2010, when the negative factor was first used.

In that same time period, the Supreme Court has rejected two school funding lawsuits and voters defeated a proposed $1 billion tax increase to help support schools.

“K-12 is in for a bumpy ride,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research organization.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, had a slightly different take. Quoting the just-departed Yogi Berra, she said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it. That’s where we are,” she added, saying education now faces “a short-term route and a long-term path” on funding.

The heart of the issue

School funding is driven by two things — Amendment 23 and a 1994 school finance law. The constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2000, requires school funding to increase by enrollment growth and inflation every year.

Negative factor history
  • Fiscal year 15-16: $855.1M
  • FY14-15: $880M
  • FY13-14: $1.004B
  • FY12-13: $1.001B
  • FY11-12: $774M
  • FY10-11: $381M
  • FY09-10: $130M

The finance law divvies money up in two ways: Base funding, through which districts receive an equal amount per student, and factor funding, which gives districts varying amounts based on unique characteristics like size, number of at-risk students and staff cost of living.

Before the negative factor was created, the Amendment 23 formula was applied to both base and factor funding. The legal rationale behind the negative factor allows the formula to be applied only to the base, essentially allowing the legislature to reduce factor funding. Some argue the negative factor also has the effect of cutting the base.

It’s estimated use of the negative factor has cut school funding by about $5 billion since 2009-10. Support for basic school operating costs is about $6.2 billion this school year.

“The negative factor has had a devastating impact on school districts across Colorado,” said Lesley Dahlkemper, a member of the Jefferson County school board.

Does education face a “new normal?”

District leaders have been resisting the negative factor for five years, but some observers have concluded that tight funding is “the new normal” for schools. Opinions still differ in the wake of the court ruling.

“I don’t know how it’s not,” said Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, a group that advocates for high academic standards.

Others hope the situation will be temporary.

Milestones
  • 2000 – Amendment 23 passed
  • 2010 – A23’s 1 percent annual “bonus” expires; negative factor imposed
  • 2013 – Supreme Court rejects Lobato funding lawsuit; voters defeat $1 billion tax increase to help fund schools
  • 2014 – Despite intense lobbying, legislators make only modest trim in negative factor
  • 2015 – High court rejects Dwyer lawsuit

“We can’t allow it to be the new normal,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a funding advocacy group.

“We should not let anyone, legislators or the general public, think that because it’s the new normal it’s OK,” said Democratic state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, a Jeffco teacher and member of the Senate Education Committee. “We shouldn’t let anyone forget what the old normal was.”

Legislative prospects are dim

With the state courthouse door closed for now, education leaders are turning toward Urschel’s short-term route: the 2016 legislative session.

Advocates made a hard push to trim the negative factor in 2014 and tried again during the 2015 session. But lawmakers were able to make only small reductions.

“If we are serious about providing a high quality education to the students of Colorado, the legislature and the governor need to make increased school funding a high priority,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

But none of the more than a dozen education leaders interviewed by Chalkbeat Colorado are optimistic.

“I hold absolutely no hope that our funding problems might be solved by the governor or the legislature,” said George Welsh, superintendent of the Canon City schools and a long-time advocate for smaller districts.

“It is not realistic to think that the governor and legislature will be able to ‘buy down the negative factor’ in the next few years,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The key problem is that refunds required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a slowing of state revenue growth, automatic increases in base school funding and required support of transportation will leave lawmakers with little extra cash for the 2016-17 budget.

“There aren’t extra dollars, there is no unused pot of money and the legislature does not have the power to create more dollars by printing them, deficit spending or by raising taxes. Thus, lobbying ‘pressure’ won’t succeed here because it can’t,” said Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, a member of Senate Education.

“I think we’re going to be lucky to keep the negative factor where it is,” said Kathleen Gebhardt, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Dwyer lawsuit.

Some people are looking to changes in the hospital provider fee for short-term relief. That fee is assessed on hospitals to attract higher federal Medicaid funding, with the money paid back out in Medicaid reimbursements. Even though it’s not a tax and can’t be spent for non-Medicaid purposes, the $800 million a year generated by the fee counts against the state’s TABOR revenue cap and helps trigger tax refunds.

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants lawmakers to reclassify the fee so it doesn’t count as state revenue. Doing so would free up money for state spending.

Many education leaders support the governor.

“It’s a short-term strategy that would give us some breathing room,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger, who has been a leading voice on school funding.

Hickenlooper was unsuccessful in selling the idea to the 2015 legislature and likely will face a challenge in 2016, particularly with majority Republicans in the Senate, who don’t want to roll back TABOR refunds.

Going to the ballot

The long-term path for education leaders is developing some sort of education-funding ballot proposal for voters.

“I think it’s very likely we’ll have to go to the ballot,” Weil said.

But no one is predicting yet what a ballot proposal would look like. Options include raising the state revenue ceiling, a dedicated tax increase for K-12 or tinkering with Amendment 23.

Constitutional thicket
A variety of constitutional and legal provisions affect the state budget, including:
  • Balanced budget – The state constitution requires this
  • Taxes – TABOR says tax rates can only be raised by voters
  • Revenue cap – The amount of money the state can spend in a year is limited by TABOR
  • Refunds – If revenue exceeds the cap, the excess must be refunded to taxpayers, or lawmakers can propose a ballot measure allowing the excess to be spent
  • Other spending – State Medicaid spending is driven partly by federal requirements, and state law requires transfers to transportation and construction under some circumstances

Kerr and others note a ballot proposal could be a tough sell.

“There are people who have been talking about it all along, but I don’t see any appetite for going back to the ballot at this point,” he said, alluding to voter rejection of a proposed tax increase for K-12 education in 2013.

Any ballot proposal also would reopen discussions within the education community about changing school finance formulas. Both education reform advocates and poorer districts argue the formulas are outdated and inequitable.

“Equity, accountability and innovation … should be top of mind as we look for answers,” Watney said.

Broader constitutional fixes are being discussed in other quarters.

A group of civic and business leaders named Building a Better Colorado is holding public meetings around the state and studying a possible list of constitutional changes, not just to the state budget.

If that group moves ahead with a proposal, it will have to consider education, Gebhardt believes.

“If you don’t have K-12 support it’s going to be very difficult,” she said, because any campaign will need the “boots on the ground” provided by teacher and parent groups.

One last lifeline

There is one other court case still pending that could affect education funding.

A 2011 federal court lawsuit filed by some legislators, other elected officials and private citizens argues that TABOR violates federal constitutional guarantees that states have “representative” forms of government – including legislatures with the power to tax.

The case hasn’t been tried while procedural issues are being considered by the federal courts.

Learn more about school finance in Chalkbeat’s archives

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

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

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscience I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”