Who Is In Charge

Session opens with K-12 funding bill

The first education bill of the 2011 legislative session was introduced Wednesday, a measure that proposes corralling “excess” state revenues and using them to offset cuts in state K-12 support.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, spoke about education funding on the legislature's opening day Jan. 12, 2011. (Photo taken from legislative video archive.)

Senate Bill 11-001 was just one of more than a dozen education-related and budget bills read across the House and Senate front desks on the opening day of the session.

Among them were some unsuccessful favorites from past sessions – tax credits for private school tuition, student voting representation on the CSU board and changing the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association Board.

Other bills propose giving charter schools easier access to unused school district buildings, letting Mesa State College non-academic employees opt out of the state personnel system, giving at-will college teachers some new rights when terminated, changing the rules on whether students can administer prescriptions to themselves at school and requiring greater transparency of the State Land Board.

The finance bill was touted by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, in his opening remarks after the session convened and formally introduced later in the day by Senate Education Committee Chair Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. Shaffer is a cosponsor. The House prime sponsor is Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

“As we head into a session where we are staring down the barrel of millions of dollars of cuts to our K-12 and higher education systems, we must consciously prioritize education first as we consider every bill that comes before the legislature,” Shaffer said.

“Today I designate the Knowledge-Based Economy Fund as Senate Bill 1. … It will create an account to set funds aside throughout this session and dedicate them specifically to education funding.”

“If your goal is to shrink the size of government – to eliminate programs and root out wasteful government spending – let me help you. Let me help you identify those programs that don’t make sense, those functions of government that can be done more efficiently and less expensively, and let me help you redirect the funds currently being wasted to a higher cause: our Knowledge-Based Economy.”

The measure would create a temporary and somewhat convoluted system to funnel an undetermined amount of money to K-12 schools. It apparently would work like this: If the balance in the state general fund next December is larger than the March 2011 estimate of general fund revenue, the difference would go into a Knowledge-Based Economy Fund and then given to the Department of Education in January 2012. The money then would be distributed to school districts to partially offset expected cuts in state support for the 2011-12 school year.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins

The bill also proposes that money recovered through various state audits go into the fund, along with whatever other money the legislature decides to transfer.

The intent of the bill is to help schools “if there is any loose money,” Bacon told Education News Colorado.

After a lengthy listing of the economic benefits of the state’s colleges and universities, Shaffer said, “There is no question, there is no argument and there is no doubt: education equals jobs. An educated workforce attracts business and a healthy business climate is the foundation for a high quality-of-life for every Coloradan.” (You can view Shaffer’s speech here.)

Education had a lower profile during opening-day ceremonies in the House.

New Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, sounded a cautionary financial note, saying, “The bill for kicking the can down the road has come due. We will not spend what we don’t have, and yes, I recognize that this will require the state of Colorado to further tighten its belt.”

McNulty did say, “We are committed to a strong and well-funded K-12 education system. We are committed to our colleges and universities that will prepare graduates to compete in a 21st century economy.” The state’s higher education system also is expected to face budget cuts in 2011-12 – and the state’s resident undergraduate students to face tuition increases of at least 9 percent.

Given Republican control of the House, SB 11-001 would seem to have uncertain prospects in that chamber.

Other education bills of interests that surfaced Wednesday include (with prime sponsors in parenthesis):

House Bill 11-1007 – Would let Mesa State employees opt out of the state personnel system. (Rep. Laura Bradford and Sen. Steve King, both Grand Junction Republicans)

House Bill 11-1008 – Would change the membership of the PERA board to reduce member representation. This has been a continuing crusade for some Republicans. (Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango)

House Bill 11-1048 – Another hardy conservative Republican perennial, this would allow parents – and scholarship donors – to take tax credits for private school costs. (Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud)

House Bill 11-1055 – A priority of the Colorado League of Charter schools, the measure would give charter schools greater leverage in getting use of district buildings and land. Expect a fight over this one. (Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield; no Senate sponsor yet)

Senate Bill 11-011 – Another repeat, this year’s version would add both voting students and voting faculty members to the CSU board. CSU rolled out some big lobbying guns to kill the 2010 version. (Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins)

Senate Bill 11-029 – A pet project of Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, this measure would require greater financial transparency of the State Land Board, which manages school trust and other state lands. Hudak and others long have felt the lands provide too little supplemental revenue for education. (Hudak and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood)

Remember, the conventional wisdom this year is that a bill has a better chance if it has a Democratic prime sponsor in the Senate and a Republican one in the House.

Check the all-new-for-2011 Education Bill Tracker for links to texts of these bills and others introduced on opening day.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”