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.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”