space wars

Charter advocacy group pushes city for more school space

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Evan Meyers, the founder of School in the Square, knows that finding space for a new charter school can be a huge headache.

Meyers spent over a year looking in “every nook and cranny and church space and community center” trying to find suitable options, suffered through two deals that fell through, and eventually moved his school to a church in Washington Heights, instead of setting up shop in the Bronx district he wanted to serve.

His experience is all too common, argues Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group that has long battled Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Based on a new analysis of 2014 building utilization data, the group argues the city could co-locate more charter schools within traditional school buildings, which are often preferable to charters compared to converting private space into a school.

FES found that 67 schools in the city have room for more than 500 additional students.

“[De Blasio’s] administration is still denying space to charter schools while 150,000 classroom seats in district schools remain empty,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools.

City officials said the report is unfair. The data shows only a snapshot of school capacity that does not include planned changes, such as expansions or projected enrollment. It also does not provide an assessment of the type of space available, city officials said.

“This report is misleading and does not accurately characterize the utilization of school buildings across the City,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness. “We work closely with [Community Education Councils], community members, school leadership teams and elected officials to ensure capacity across the city is being used efficiently to meet the needs of all students.”

The new analysis builds on a long and contentious debate. In 2014, Eva Moskowitz, the vocal leader of the city’s largest charter school network, fought with Mayor Bill de Blasio over charter school space. In the end, the state passed a law that requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside city buildings or provide public funding to cover the cost of rent in a private facility.

Still, finding space, particularly co-located space, which requires fewer renovations, remains among the top concerns for most charter schools, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Of the 81 schools that have applied for space since the the state’s new law, 54 have moved into private space and 19 have been co-located, according to a Politico article from February.

The problem is also likely to worsen as the charter sector grows. This year alone, 15 more charter schools are slated to open across the city. By now, most of the locations that could be used without inciting community backlash are already taken, Merriman said.

“As time has gone by, the obvious spaces to place charters, to place any co-location, has decreased,” Merriman said “and those that exist are generally viewed as politically combustible.”

The FES analysis also tries to paint a picture of exactly where there is extra co-located space available. It finds that Brooklyn has the most buildings with excess space. Twenty-six schools are using less than half of their seats in Brooklyn, according to the report.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.