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.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: