School Finance

Email to the editor: State budget protest coverage inadequate

Two weeks ago, members of the city’s Community Education Councils protested the state budget deal outside the New York Public Library and then marched to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office. Chalkbeat covered the event with a short post (“Rally against state budget draws hundreds to midtown“) and received the following letter to the editor in response:

Dear Chalkbeat:

We are writing to protest your inadequate coverage of the April 10th rally and march on the Governor’s office. Outraged by the charter giveaway that Governor Cuomo engineered with the help of the Legislature in this year’s state budget bill, many hundreds of parents, teachers and students gathered on the steps of the NY Public Library before marching  to the Governor’s office.
This unprecedented rally, organized primarily by Community Education Council members citywide, in just a week,grew out the anger and betrayal felt by parents and community members at the way the Governor and legislature essentially gave away NYC public schools  to millionaire education investors.

Rather than sending one of your reporters to cover this event, you only posted a short blurb clearly taken from the press release after the fact.  Chalkbeat’s failure to assign a reporter to the event  glaringly contrasts with your close and detailed coverage of every move made by the charter operators and their backers.  Indeed, you published two different stories on the charter march across the Brooklyn Bridge, three different stories on the Albany rally for charters (though you failed to disclose that Gov. Cuomo was actually behind it) ,  and  on March 29  you ran two stories on reactions to the budget bills, BOTH from the point of view of the charter operators.

Even more importantly, you have failed to cover any of the substantive issues and reasons behind our anger, including how unprecedented these charter provisions are, how they apply only to NYC, how they will  detract from the city’s already underfunded capital plan and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, while thousands of public school students will continue sit in trailers or in overcrowded classrooms, without art, music, science or therapy and counseling rooms, or on waiting lists for Kindergarten.

The very headline on the short ex-post facto blurb you ran on the  rally omitted any mention of the charter school issue, Your summary of the charter provisions in the budget bill as “safeguards for charters” was biased enough to have been written by the charter lobby itself.  In reality, the bill forces PREFERENTIAL treatment for charters, not safeguards.  There are overcrowded school communities in NYC that have been waiting for over 20 years for a public school to be built for their children, and they will continue to wait, while hedge-fund backed charters will now automatically receive space, on demand and free of charge.

It has not escaped our attention that the Walton Foundation helped finance the expansion of GothamSchools into Chalkbeat, and that the same organization is a prominent backer of the school privatization movement and contributed to the virulent $5 million ad campaign that directly led to the preferential provisions in the state law.  Your organization also counts among its financial backers many other prominent charter school supporters and board members, including the Gates Family Foundation,  Whitney Tilson, Boykin Curry, Paul Appelbaum , Ken Hirsch, Charles Ledley,  Kate Shoemaker and others.

In order  to appear unbiased by the sources of your funding and safeguard any journalistic credibility, your organization  should  cover the  point of view of the thousands of NYC public school parents who, though we may not be wealthy,  feel that our children have been dispossessed, displaced, and potentially evicted from their public schools, cheated out of their fair share of space.  We, too, represent an important constituency in the debate over privatization, and constitute an important voice to be heard.   We are concerned that your inadequate and one-sided coverage of the forced privatization of our schools has been unduly influenced by the same forces that have biased the Governor – the huge pocketbooks of the organizations and financiers that back them.

We urge you to publish this letter in your blog and respond to it.
Yours sincerely,
Shino Tanikawa, CECD2
Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters
Lisa Donlan, CEC1
Teresa Arboleda, CCELL
Eric Goldberg, CECD2
Deborah Alexandar, CECD30
Theresa Hammonds, CECD3
David Goldsmith, CECD13
Ann Kjellberg
Valerie Williams, CECD75
Rachel Paster
Angela Garces, CECD6
Beth Cirone, CECD2
Ellen McHugh, CCSE
Victoria Frye, CECD6
Miriam Farer, CECD6
Isaac Carmignani, CECD30
Eduardo Hernandez, CECD8
Amy Shire, CECD13
Michelle Kupper, CECD15
Jordan Margolis, CECD14
Debbie Feiner, CECD14

Organizational affiliations for identification purpose only

The bottom line is that the protest was clearly well-attended and unique in its CEC-wide organization, and we wish we had been there.

We make decisions about coverage every day based on the fact that we can’t be at every relevant event in the city or it would be impossible for us to provide any deeper coverage of these issues. We regularly attend, and skip, events that reflect a variety of viewpoints. That’s why we work to keep readers informed about events we don’t make it to with posts like the one we wrote about this protest.

Those decisions have everything to with our sense of how we can best add to the “education conversation” happening across the city, and nothing to do with our funders—who make it possible to do what we do, but don’t influence our coverage.

Other feedback? We’re all ears.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.