Who Is In Charge

Gebhardt gets construction board seat

Kathleen Gebhardt, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs’ in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, has been named to a vacant seat on the state Capital Construction Assistance Board. The board decides on grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt runs the non-profit Boulder law firm Children’s Voices and filed the original Lobato lawsuit in 2005. A Denver judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor late last year, finding the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. The case currently is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. (Get more information in the EdNews Lobato archive.)

She was appointed by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, a legislative lame duck who currently is running for Congress in the 4th District.

Gebhardt said Tuesday evening that she didn’t seek the seat but that “several” members of the construction board had suggested her name to Shaffer.

Asked if she thought there was an sort of conflict of interest in joining a state board when she’s suing the state, Gebhardt said, “I struggled with that” but decided it’s not a problem. She said she will recuse herself in grant applications involving the 21 school districts that are plaintiffs in Lobato.

Gebhardt also was a lead attorney in another school-related lawsuit against the state, Giardino v. State Board of Education. That suit, filed in 1998, challenged the lack of state funding for school facilities. The case was settled in 2000, with the state agreeing to allocate $190 million a year over 10 years for school buildings. Those payments ended after the BEST law was passed in 2008.

Under the complicated formula created by that law, various members of the nine-person board are appointed by the State Board of Education, the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the minority leaders of the House and Senate.

Board members also have to represent various constituencies, such as different sizes of school districts, or have specific professional expertise in school design, construction and facilities management. The board’s conflict of interest policy requires members to recuse themselves on applications involving their districts or districts their employers do business with.

The vacancy filled by Shaffer is for “one member who has public school finance expertise and knowledge regarding public school trust lands,” in the words of state law. The BEST program receives a portion of revenues from school trust lands to finance its grants.

Mary Wickersham
Mary Wickersham

Gebhardt replaces Mary Wickersham, an original board member who served as chair. As a researcher working with the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Wickersham laid some of the groundwork that led to the BEST law. She later worked as an aide to then-Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a key advocate for passage of the law. The treasurer’s office is responsible for setting up the financing of BEST projects. Wickersham, who now works for the Piton Foundation, recently resigned from the construction board.

Board members can serve up to three consecutive two-year terms. (Find out about other board members here.)

The board has one remaining vacancy, a position that is supposed to be filled by an architect and which is appointed by the governor. Another vacancy recently was filled with the appointment of Pete Hall, facilities manager for the Poudre school district.

The construction board and the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance are part of the Colorado Department of Education. The state board and education Commissioner Robert Hammond are named as defendants in the Lobato case.

Some construction board members recently discussed whether the body should file a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the Lobato plaintiffs. But the matter was dropped after the state attorney general’s office advised the board it couldn’t do that because it’s part of a state agency.

Another state agency, the University of Colorado Board of Regents, has intervened in the Lobato case on the side of the state, at the urging of Attorney General John Suthers. The regents are an elected board.

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: