Who Is In Charge

Teacher pension bite could rise

New bills started flowing again Wednesday in the legislature, including 10 education-related measures, four of which are of major interest.

Those measures would allow local governments and school boards to change employee pension contributions, create a new performance-based funding system for state colleges and universities, require physical activity for elementary school students and make education management organizations subject to state regulation.

Jim Polsfut, Joe Garcia
Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia (right) testified to legislative committees Jan. 19, 2011.

Wednesday also marked the first convening of the House and Senate education committees, which held a joint hearing for a briefing on the state’s higher ed system from Joe Garcia, who is both lieutenant governor and the nominee to head the Department of Higher Education.

Here’s the rundown on the key education measures:

Senate Bill 11-074 – PERA contributions

The bill would allow school boards to lower the percentage of payroll they contribute to employee pensions – and raise the amount from their paychecks that employees have to contribute. Under current state law, local government employers contribute 10.15 percent of payroll while workers pay 8 percent of salary. The bill would allow employers to lower their contribution by up to 2.5 percent and raise the employee contribution by a like amount.

The state has done a similar thing with its workers, including many in higher education, and may extend the shift for another year. The measure is sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, who are among a group of conservative Republicans skeptical of the PERA reforms, Senate Bill 0-001, passed last year. Whether the bill will get anywhere in the Democratic controlled Senate is an open question. But the idea might be attractive to some school boards and local governments.

But, shifting employer and employee contributions isn’t necessarily neutral for PERA. Because employees who leave the system are allowed to withdraw their past contributions, higher contributions mean a larger payout for departing workers and less money in PERA trust funds. Employer contributions stay with the system, regardless of whether employees leave.

Senate Bill 11-052 – Higher education goals and accountability

This might be the “big” higher ed bill of the 2011 session and, like several education reform bills of recent years, it would have a long implementation horizon. It would set broad state goals for education – increased access affordability and productivity; reduction of ethnic gaps in college completion; affordability; and increased contribution of higher education to economic development. It would then assign the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to set more detailed goals for the higher ed system’s various levels – research universities, four-year colleges and community colleges – and to review the roles of all state colleges.

Rep. Tom Masssey, Sen. Bob Bacon
Rep. Tom Masssey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, chair of the legislative education committees.

Ultimately, starting the 2012-13 school year, performance on those goals would be tied to part of institutions’ funding from the state. According to the bill summary, “over the following five years, an increasing portion, eventually 25 percent, of the state funding for the statewide system of higher education will be allocated to governing boards based on their respective institutions’ success in meeting expectations.”

The idea of tying college funding to performance – retention, graduation rates and more – is being widely discussed nationally. It also was suggested as a future direction for Colorado in the higher education strategic plan. But – and this was the subject of much discussion – drafters of the plan agreed that performance funding won’t work until state support of higher ed increases. Overall, the state system now gets only about a quarter of its revenue from tax revenues, and that contribution keeps going down.

The proposal should provide interesting discussion, and some college leaders won’t be happy with the increased power it gives to CCHE. The bill does have influential bipartisan sponsors: House Education Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs; Senate Ed Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins plus Senate Ed members Rollie Health, D-Boulder, and Keith King, R-Colorado Springs. Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Mark Ferandino, D-Denver, is signed on in the House. Heath and Massey are the prime sponsors.

House Bill 11-1069 – Required physical activity

This year’s version of the “recess bill” would require schools to provide elementary students with 150 minutes a week of “physical activity,” which is rather broadly defined in the bill. It’s hard to argue against student health, but school districts – spooked by seemingly endless budget cuts – may well fight this as an unfunded state mandate. They’ve done that before and won. Massey is the prime sponsor – and he doesn’t yet have a Senate sponsor.

Senate Bill 11-069 – Regulation of education management organizations

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is proposing that all education management organizations – the kinds of companies and nonprofits that manage some charter schools, provide services for school districts and run projects for the state – be licensed by the Department of Education and that the length of such contracts be limited.

Hudak and some other Democrats with more traditional views about the structure of public education have become nervous about the influence of such organizations. But this bill may have a tough time, and it doesn’t currently have a sponsor in the Republican-controlled House.

Other bills

Senate Bill 11-070 – Special education services in college

Also sponsored by Hudak, this bill would require state colleges to offer the same services in colleges to disabled students as those students received under individual education plans in high school. Colleges may be concerned about the costs in tight budget times.

Bouncy castleSenate Bill 11-075 – Bouncy castles

You’ve seen them at school carnivals – those inflatable castles the kids jump around in. They’re not currently regulated, as amusement rides are, but freshman Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, thinks they and other inflatable amusement devices should be.

House Bill 11-1077 – Gifted and talented law

Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, wants to separate state laws covering gifted and talented students from the law covering special education students. Peniston tried to do this last year with a bill that gained a lot of additional costly sections and was defeated.

Also introduced Wednesday were House Bill11-1074, concerning financial aid and tuition at the Colorado Schools of Mines; House Bill 11-1062, a proposed study of a pilot farm-to-school program in the San Luis Valley; and House Bill 11-1060, changing the terms of University of Northern Colorado trustees.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Garcia’s first committee outing

“I don’t know what to call you,” one legislator said Thursday morning to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also has been nominated to be director of DHE.

“Joe is fine,” Garcia said.

Garcia was articulate and on point as he moved through a presentation about the state higher ed system, including such challenges as tight funding, completion gaps, lagging financial aid and other woes.

Mention of the completion gap between white and Hispanic students – Colorado has the second largest in the nation – prompted some lawmakers to raise the sensitive issue of resident tuition rates for undocumented students, something that’s expected to be a big fight later in the session.

None of the legislators got on their soapboxes; they just were curious how undocumented students figure into the completion gap.

Garcia noted that any way you figure it, “We still have a big gap.”

Complimented by lawmakers at the end of the nearly 90-minute session, Garcia said, “I think, for the most part, I was able to bluff my way through it.”

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.”