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.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.