Who Is In Charge

BEST hopefuls cross their fingers

Over the next three days, Colorado school districts will compete for the only significant source of state construction dollars in hopes of getting money for projects that range from building schools to replacing roofs and 50-year-old boilers.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy of the state Capital Construction Assistance Division.

Their fate is in the hands of the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which meets Wednesday through Friday to decide on 2012-13 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

A total of $439.8 million in projects is being sought by 48 districts, 12 charter schools, one board of cooperative educational services and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. The requests seek $297.7 million in state funding and promise $142.1 million in local matching funds.

The competitive five-year-old BEST program is the only significant source of state construction and renovation funds for schools. As such, the grant process is closely watched not only by applicants but also by other districts and charters who hope to apply in the future.

The BEST board hasn’t yet decided how much state money it will commit this time. It could be as low as about $130 million. Because the grant requests include nearly $300 million in state funds, some districts will go away empty-handed, just as other applicants have in the past four grant cycles.

Larger projects are financed through a lease-purchase system known as certificates of participation, on which annual payments are made from state funds and local matches.

This year’s three-day board meeting is significant because the board is approaching the end of an era of big grants. State law sets an annual $40 million limit on payments for BEST projects, and the annual payout now is near $30 million.

This week’s deliberations also are of interest because the board is changing its procedures in an effort to minimize confusion about how it decides on projects.

The applicants

This year’s applications range from the $42 million high school replacement project sought by the Montezuma-Cortez schools – half from the state, half from a local match – to a $27,500 request from the Sterling schools for fire alarm upgrades. In addition to the lease-purchase projects, the BEST board also makes direct cash grants for smaller needs.

There are 17 applications of more than $10 million each. Many of them fit what’s often considered the traditional profile of a BEST applicant – a small rural district with an aging building and insufficient local resources to replace it. In addition to Montezuma-Cortez, here are the applications with individual project costs of more than $20 million:

    • Lake County or Leadville – $31 million for three projects, including high school renovation and addition
    • Greeley – $29.2 million to replace a middle school
    • Sheridan – $29.5 million to replace an early childhood center and renovate a middle school
    • West End, including Naturita and Nucla – $21.9 million to replace a PK-12 school
    • Limon – $20.8 million for a PK-12 renovation
    • Elbert 200 – $20.6 million for a new PK-12 school
    • Otis in Washington County – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement
    • South Conejos, including Antonito – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement

An additional eight applicants have requested projects with price tags of between $10 million and $20 million each. Those include Fort Lupton, Genoa-Hugo, Hi Plains in Kit Carson County, Kim, Pikes Peak BOCES, Platte Valley including Kersey, Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale and Salida.

As often happens, several of the applicants are districts and schools whose bids failed in previous years. Of the 17 applicants seeking $10 million or more, seven are repeat requests, including the two largest, Montezuma-Cortez and Lake County.

Applicants also include some of the state’s largest districts, such as Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Denver.

The process

BEST awards are made using a complicated set of building condition and financial factors that give the construction board a fair amount of discretion. And because the total of the applications exceeds the money available every year, some projects that look deserving on paper are left out while similar applications win.

Follow the decisions
  • The BEST board will meet starting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the Aspen Board Room of the Adams 12-Five Star district conference center, 1500 E. 128th Ave. in Thornton.
  • Get agenda details and ground rules here.
  • EdNews will be covering the meetings and will provide updates on Twitter and Facebook plus daily wrapups.

In past years, applications were listed by Division of Capital Construction Staff in order of their ratings on various structural and educational suitability factors. But the board, applying additional factors such as matching amounts, picked winners out of the original lists’ order. In some years, the board stopped going through the list after it had spent the available money.

That caused confusion and some resentment from districts that felt that their applications didn’t get full hearings.

This year, the board will be briefed on projects in alphabetical order and applicants will be allowed to address the board. After each presentation, the board will decide whether to put a project on one of two short lists, the first for projects under $1 million and the other for those costing more than $1 million. All applications will be reviewed.

After that process is finished, board members will individually rank the projects on the two short lists, and division staff will compile those rankings to create prioritized lists. The board “will then review each of the shortlists and determine how many of the projects can be funded with the available amount of money,” in the words of a division document.

Also new this year is a formula for calculating the matching funds required of charter schools, a change that’s expected to make some charter bids more competitive.

Future of BEST

Created by the 2008 legislature, BEST was a feel-good program that won wide Statehouse support because it seemed to address a problem – deteriorating rural schools – without increasing taxes or taking money from other programs. BEST is funded by a share of revenues from state school trust lands and a smaller amount of Colorado Lottery revenues.

But term limits make legislative memories short, and lots of questions were raised about BEST during the 2012 session. Some lawmakers wonder if the money could be better used for other purposes. Others think the school lands revenues should flow into that program’s permanent fund, allowing it to grow and provide interest revenue for future education spending.

Despite the talk, no BEST legislation passed last spring. But some board members are worried about what might happen in 2013. During its May meeting, the board discussed the possibility of spending two years’ worth of money this year, avoiding legislative cuts next year. No decision was made, so the board will have to make that call this week.

The construction board’s recommendations are expected to include alternate projects in case some winners can’t raise their local matches through bond issues in November. Of the 17 applications with price tags of more than $10 million each, all but two will require bond issues to raise local matches. Last year two districts that were grant finalists lost their bond elections, allowing two alternates to win awards.

The construction board’s final list will have to be ratified by the State Board of Education, which usually acts at its August meeting.

Through last January, the program has provided $674 million for 237 projects at 147 schools.

The BEST program launched with a professional evaluation of all school buildings in the state. Based on that, division officials say there’s an $18 billion backlog of construction and renovation needs and that those grow at the rate of $1 billion a year.

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: