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.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: