Who Is In Charge

BEST board struggles with grant requests

Giving away money can be tricky and frustrating.

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which has had experience with the problem, was reminded of that again Tuesday as it considered 47 requests for school renovation and construction aid. The requests totaled about $600 million, but the board has a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $220 million.

The board’s biggest struggle was how to balance building conditions and financial issues when it prioritized projects.

This year marks the second full round of board grants under the 2008 Build Excellent Schools law. But the grants made at this time last year were decided before completion of a statewide school facilities assessment, which evaluated the condition of every school building in the state.

That assessment was finished late last year and provided a basis for the staff of the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance to preliminarily rank applicants for funding.

But, building condition is not the sole criterion for awarding grants, and the board wrestled with how to balance structural issues and financial matters. Based on such financial criteria as proposed matching funds, district wealth and the cost of construction proposals, members moved a few individual projects higher on the priority list.

The moves were confusing and a bit disconcerting to some members of the audience, some of whom had arrived at the meeting assuming their individual projects had a certain place in the pecking order. A mix of school district and charter officials, financial advisors and others attended the meeting.

Several board members expressed frustration at having to pick and choose among projects. “Everyone on the list has substantial needs,” noted chair Mary Wickersham.

Dave Van Sant, a veteran former superintendent, said the project ranking system needs improvement, including how it handles charter schools.

The board worked its way through about half the applicants and will meet again Wednesday to make final recommendations to the State Board of Education.

The board could change some of Tuesday’s preliminary decisions, with projects added, dropped or changed.

Mapleton Public Schools Skyline campus

The largest project tentatively approved by the board Tuesday was $53.7 million for significant reconstruction at the Mapleton School District’s Skyline campus, including a $10.7 million local match. Mapleton received a large grant last year but couldn’t use it because voters didn’t approve the local match. The district has reduced its proposed match in order to make a new bond proposal more attractive, something that made a few board members unhappy.

Other tentative approvals went to:

  • Monte Vista – $32.1 million total for an elementary school addition and replacement of the high school. Local match $4.5 million.
  • Center – $31.5 million for replacement of several buildings. Local match $4.7 million.
  • Holly – $28.5 million for a new PK-12 school. Local match $3.4 million.
  • Akron – $24.1 million for a new PK-12 school. Local match $7.7 million
  • Elbert – $19.6 million for a PK-12 replacement school. Local match $3.5 million
  • Rocky Mountain Deaf Charter School (Jefferson County) – $18.7 million for a new building. (The board may scale this one back because some members are concerned the school is proposing a larger facility than needed.)
  • Peyton – $5.6 million for an addition to the high school. $2.6 million local match.
  • Lake George Charter – $7.4 million for new P-6 school. $969,550 local match.
  • North Routt Charter in Clark – $3.9 million for new K-8 campus, $796,667 local match. This charter, which uses a Mongolian yurt as part of its campus, won a grant last year but then lost it because the state ruled it couldn’t use a loan for matching funds.

Proposals from Otis, Pueblo County, the Pikes Peak BOCES, the Ross Montessori School in Carbondale and the Eagle County Charter School were discussed, but the board took no action, meaning those likely are out of the running. A plan for a new school in the West End District at Nucla was tabled, as was a proposal for elementary school renovations and expansion in Florence.

The board voted 4 yes and 5 no to reject a $10.9 million proposal for a new K-8 building at the Aspen Community Charter School.

The board didn’t discuss several other proposals, including from the Odyssey Charter School in Denver, Sheridan, Westminster, Aurora and Denver. Board practice is to work through a list of applicants and stop once the available funds are exhausted. Board members do receive detailed information on every proposal – the briefing book for the current set of grants is about 800 pages.

Cash grants approved on Monday

On Monday the board tentatively approved spending nearly $11 million in state funds on school fix-up projects around Colorado.

Roof repairs and fire system upgrades dominated the list of successful projects. But also among approved projects were:

  • A roof replacement at La Veta High School that includes keeping bats and pigeons out of the historic building’s attic.
  • Replacement of a 51-year-old wooden gym floor in the Moffat district. The floor’s been sanded so many times that nail heads are sticking up.
  • Construction of an enclosed walkway between the two small buildings of a charter school in Marble. The walkway will shield kids from the area’s heavy winter snows. The application also noted there are “two to three cougar sightings” a year near the school.

In a year when school budgets are being slashed, the BEST program is a lonely example of increased education spending. The program is primarily funded by a portion of revenues from state school lands. The law requires that priority be given to projects that address health and safety problems.

On Monday the board dealt with requests for direct cash grants. The applications asked for a total of $27.6 million, including $11.2 million in local matching money. The board approved using $10.9 million in state funds.

Among the larger projects approved Monday were a $2 million fire systems upgrade at Longmont High School, more than $1 million in fire projects in Colorado Springs District 11 and a $1.2 million alarm project in the Poudre schools.

Also approved was a $2.2 million sewage systems upgrade for some schools in the mountain areas of western Jefferson County.

All the projects include substantial local matches.

Additional successful projects were for heating and air conditioning upgrades in Montrose, roofing improvements in the Westminster and East Otero districts and an $804,100 new roof for the James Irwin Charter School in Colorado Springs. That passed 5-4.

Other districts weren’t so fortunate. The board declined to fund large projects for electronic lock systems in Aurora and Mesa County. Several proposals by the Englewood schools also weren’t funded.

Monday’s discussion highlighted several concerns by board members, including low matches, lack of details in district letters requesting lower matches and technical concerns about some individual projects. Suggested matching funds are determined by formula for individual projects, based on such factors as student poverty levels and district financial capacity. Districts can request waiver of the matching requirements. Some board members complained that too many waiver letters merely cited the tough financial problems facing all schools and didn’t provide sufficient details on local conditions.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

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

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”