Who Is In Charge

Construction grant bids set to be culled

More than $300 million worth of school construction projects will be the table starting Tuesday, when the state Capital Construction Assistance Board opens a three-day meeting to decide its annual grants.

bestThe event is closely watched in the education community, both by districts whose applications are on the line and by schools thinking of applying in the future.

As has happened every year since the Building Excellent Schools Today program was created in 2008, some applicants will go away disappointed. The program, funded by a share of state school land revenues and restricted in how much debt it can incur, can fund only some of the applications it receives.

This year nearly 40 districts and about a dozen charter schools have submitted a total of more than 60 requests. Those bids total about $308 million in total project costs, including $228 million in state funds and $80 million in promised local matches.

The board’s staff is recommending spending up to $10 million in cash grants and a little more than $80 million for larger projects that are financed with debt.

The applications range from a $27,601 request the from Mountain Valley district in the San Luis Valley for security upgrades to a $37.4 million bid to build a new middle school in Fort Morgan.

Last year the board approved about $280 million worth of projects from a list that totaled about $440 million.

Smaller projects such as roof replacements, new boilers and security upgrades generally receive direct cash grants from the BEST program. Big-ticket projects – new schools and major renovations – are paid for through lease-purchase agreements. State and local funds are pooled to pay off those agreements, known technically as certificates of participation, over several years.

The BEST selection process is unique in that the construction board has a certain amount of discretion in making its recommendations and because it makes its decisions request-by-request in an open meeting, unlike the bureaucrats-in-an-office process that governs many grant programs. Applicants also are allowed to make brief in-person pitches to the board, in addition to the voluminous applications they filed months ago.

BEST applications are evaluated on a complicated set of criteria including building conditions and suitability for educational uses, cost and local financial ability to provide matches, among other factors. In some cases the board can adjust matching formulas.

The board’s decisions won’t be the last word on 2012-13 grants. The State Board of Education – and for the first time this year, the legislative Capital Development Committee – will review the construction board’s recommendations later this summer.

Surviving that selection process is only the first hurdle for successful applicants. Many school districts, especially smaller ones, require voter approval of bond issues to raise their local matches. The board selects alternate applications to be considered for awards in November if any of the finalists fail to pass bond issues.

The big requests

Here are the requests with project costs of $10 million or more:

Fort Morgan – $37.4 million to replace a middle school. State share 6.2 million.

Aurora – $31.5 million to replace Mrachek Middle School, including a $25.8 million state share.

Limon – $25 million to build a new PK-12 school in this eastern plains district. $17.7 million state share.

AXL Academy – $20.9 million to construct a new PK-8 building for this Aurora charter. State share $19.7 million.

South Conejos – $19.7 million to build a new PK-12 school for this San Luis Valley district. State share $14 million.

Moffat – $16.7 million for a replacement PK-12 school in this San Luis Valley district. State share $12.1 million.

Swallows Charter Academy – $15.2 million to construct a new PK-12 charter school in Pueblo. State share $10.5 million.

Creede – $14.5 million for a replacement K-12 school in this San Juan Mountains district, one of the most isolated in the state. State share $6.7 million.

Montrose – $14.2 million for a new middle school. State share $7.1 million.

Animas High School – $13.7 million for a new building for this charter school in Durango. State share $11.4 million.

Ross Montessori Charter – $12.9 million for a new building to house this Carbondale K-8 charter. The school was a 2012 finalist but was pulled off the list late in the year because its financing and land-purchase arrangements weren’t complete.

Edison – $10.8 million to renovate and expand the junior/senior high school in this plains district east of Colorado Springs. State share $10.5 million.

Kim – $10.6 million to renovate and add to the PK-12 school in this district south of La Junta. State share $7.9 million.

Independence Academy – $10 million to build a new K-8 charter school in Grand Junction. State share $8 million.

The construction board convenes the selection process at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Adams 12 Conference Center, 1500 E. 128th Ave. in Thornton.

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: