Who Is In Charge

Audit: College stipend goals not realized

A state audit released Monday found what everybody in higher education already knows – the College Opportunity Fund program of student stipends doesn’t work as intended.

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The first-ever performance audit of how state colleges and universities are funded was presented to the Legislature Audit Committee by representatives of the Sacramento, Calif.-based firm Sjoberg Evanshenk, which did the review on contract with the state auditor.

It concluded, “The shift in the funding mechanism for higher education has not been fully implemented.”

The program doesn’t work as intended because of tight state budgets in recent years, auditors found, not because the Department of Higher Education or campus administrators haven’t administered it properly.

Rather than following the funding requirements of the law, “The amount of state support provided to each institution is decided through a legislative budgeting process based on the state’s fiscal capacity to fund higher education,” not much different from what was done before the program was created, the audit noted.

The method for funding state colleges and universities was created by the 2004 legislature to replace the old system of direct state appropriations to colleges and universities.

The system has two parts. The stipends are tuition discounts for resident undergraduate students and are the same amount per credit hour at every institution. The total amount of stipends was supposed to increase annually by enrollment and inflation.

The second part of the system is called fee for service and was intended to reimburse colleges and universities for services they provide beyond educating undergraduates, such as graduate education and service to rural areas.

A key reason for the change was to exempt the higher education system from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which limits annual growth in state revenues. Those limits don’t apply to government agencies that qualify as “enterprises,” defined as entities that receive less than 10 percent of their funding directly from the state.

Technically, the College Opportunity Fund stipends go directly to students, not to institutions, so the new system allowed colleges to become enterprises. Taking colleges out from under TABOR also solved the problem of having tuition income count against TABOR revenue limits for the entire state budget.

The stipends and fee-for-service system solved the TABOR problem, as was noted by a 2009 study done for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a research organization.

But, as the new audit confirmed, declining state revenues in recent years have forced the stipends to fluctuate as the legislature balanced the budget each year. Lawmakers have adjusted both stipends and fees for service to match the amount of money available for higher education in a given year.

The audit noted that total stipend and fee funding hit a high of about $628 million in 2007-08 and dropped to a low of $312 million in 2009-10.

The original stipend-and-fee funding system also required individual performance contracts for colleges and universities, which also were reviewed by the auditors.

That performance system will be replaced under a more recent state law, Senate Bill 11-052, which requires creation of a new state higher education master plan and negotiation of new performance plans. Those plans are to be hammered out this fall, and the law intends part of college funding eventually to be tied to how colleges perform on those plans.

The audit also recommended tightening up procedures for calculating individual college’s fee-for-service amounts, for verifying students’ eligibility for stipends, and for granting waivers to the program’s credit-hour maximum.

“This audit acknowledges the funding challenges which have hindered achieving some of the COF program’s goals,”  said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, “but also notes important areas where we can improve our oversight and management of this unique and complex financing system while encouraging us to move toward rewarding performance and outcomes.”

Garcia, who met with the audit committee to discuss the findings, also serves as director of the Department of Higher Education.

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.”