Who Is In Charge

Campaigns gear up for school tax votes

Fundraisers already are hard at work corralling contributors for the campaigns supporting proposed tax increases in key Colorado school districts.

As usual, the largest contributions have come from banks, financial firms and construction companies who do business with school districts underwriting bonds and building schools.

Most of the activity ahead of a late-July reporting deadline was in the Cherry Creek and Jefferson County districts. Money also has been raised by a committee that supports an Aurora tax increase, even though the school board hasn’t yet placed the plan on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The St. Vrain Valley and Greeley/Evans districts have put tax increases on the ballot, but those campaign committees registered on or after the July deadline so they haven’t had to file reports with the secretary of state’s office. The next reporting deadline isn’t until Oct. 16.

The Denver and Douglas County boards haven’t decided on ballot proposals. A Denver campaign committee registered with the secretary of state last month but hasn’t had to file a report.

A review of the secretary of state’s database found no opposition committees yet registered in any district. Here’s a look at campaign financial activity in major districts so far:

Jefferson County

Citizens for Jeffco Schools, a registered committee since 2008, reported cash on hand of $25,949.

Tax request types

  • Bond issue – Typically used for school construction and renovation, it includes additional revenue to pay off the bonds issued to finance the projects.
  • Mill levy override – A specific tax increase used for operating expenses.

The committee started the year with $3,968 and has raised $49,665.

Large contributors include Robert W. Baird & Co. of Milwaukee, Wisc., the district’s investment banker ($20,000) and FirstBank Holding Co. of Lakewood ($15,000).

The campaign also has received more than 180 smaller individual contributions, including $400 from Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and $250 from board president Leslie Dahlkemper.

The committee has spent $27,684 this year, most of it with Public Opinion Strategies of Golden and with the Denver campaign firm MIDG Group.

In addition, the committee also spent $15,000 with Public Opinion Strategies in July 2011 to survey voter attitudes about a potential tax election.

Cherry Creek

Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools, in existence since 2005, reported $66,920 on hand. It started the year with a balance of $3,556, raised $68,376 and spent $5,012 with campaign firm MIDG Group.

Major contributors include Haselden Construction of Centennial ($5,000), M.A. Mayer Construction of Centennial ($5,000) and Shaffer Baucom Engineering of Lakewood ($2,500).

The committee also received $2,500 from FASB Fitness Festival of Greenwood Village, a non-profit that runs the First American State Bank Fitness Festival. According to the group’s website, Cherry Creek Superintendent Mary Chesley is honorary chair.

The group has received more than 70 small contributions from individuals and businesses. Among the donors were Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial ($50), and former Superintendent Monte Moses ($200).

Aurora

Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools, which registered on June 26, reported contributions of $11,500 and no spending through the July 26 reporting deadline.

All of the income came from two construction companies – Adolphson & Peterson of Aurora ($10,000) and JHL Constructors of Centennial ($1,500).

Construction companies, architects and engineers are traditional contributors to district campaign committees, although Aurora this year is considering a tax override for operating expenses, not a bond issue.

Looking ahead, looking back

In addition to Greeley, 14 other districts around the state are seeking or are expected to seek voter approval of bond issues in order to match state grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program.

In the metro area, Sheridan is asking for voters for a $6.5 million bond issue. A campaign committee, Best for Sheridan Students Committee, registered in late July and hasn’t yet had to report contributions.

In smaller districts, campaign committees often aren’t formed as supporters rely on word of mouth to advocate for bond issues and operating increases. In small districts with committees, contributions often total only a few hundred dollars.

Last November’s election was sobering for Colorado school districts. Of the 43 bond issues and operating increases proposed by 36 districts, only 11 were approved. Six of those that passed were for BEST matches, but six other BEST bond proposals were rejected. (Get details in this story.)

Douglas County was the only large metro-area district to go to the ballot last year, and voters resoundingly defeated a bond issue and a mill levy override.

Proposals and campaigns

State law bars school districts from conducting campaigns or spending tax money to advocate, so campaigns typically are handled by separate citizen political committees.

→ ON THE BALLOT

  • Cherry Creek – The district is seeking a $125 million bond issue and a $25 million operating tax increase, also known as a mill levy override. The district says that would cost owners of “average” homes an additional $8 a month in property taxes. Campaign organization: Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools
  • Greeley – The district has proposed an $8.2 million bond issue to match a state grant for replacing a middle school. The district is an alternate for the state grant, so other districts will have to lose bond elections in order for Greeley to move up on the list. Campaign organization: Committee to Support Education Greeley/Evans
  • Jefferson County – Voters are being asked to approve a $99 million bond issue and a $39 million operating increase. The campaign estimates property taxes will rise $1.43 a month per $100,000 of home value. Campaign organization: Citizens for Jeffco Schools
  • St. Vrain – The school board has approved asking voters for a $14.8 million operating increase. The increase would amount to an estimated $4.16 a month per $100,000 of a home’s market value. Campaign organization: Yes on 3A

→ IN THE WINGS?

  • Aurora – The district is studying a $15 million operating increase, which would mean a $5 per month tax increase on $100,000 home. The school board will discuss the issue again on Aug. 21. Campaign organization: Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools
  • Denver – Under consideration are a $457 million bond issue and a $49 million operating increase. Campaign organization: Together for Denver Schools
  • Douglas County – The school board voted on July 26 to reserve a spot on the Nov. 6 ballot but hasn’t revealed what it might propose. Past campaign organization: Douglas County Citizens for Education Reform. The committee is listed as “active” by the secretary of state but has had no fundraising activity since last year.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.