Who Is In Charge

Survivors bask in BEST success

Article updated on July 1

Three dozen school repair and construction projects Wednesday survived the always-grueling selection process for state Building Excellent Schools Today grants, winning recommendations for 2011-12 awards.

Prairie School in Weld County
Prairie School in Weld County

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board recommended 11 awards for lease-purchase grants, which are used for larger renovation and construction grants. The final decision is up to the State Board of Education at its Aug. 3 meeting.

The approved projects total about $172 million, $142 million in state funds and $30 million from local matches. State and local funds are pooled to pay off “certificates of participation,” the financial instruments that will be sold to raise construction money.

Significantly, the construction board also designated five alternate projects to possibly receive money if any of the 11 fail to raise matching funds. (The total cost of backup projects is $93 million, including $55 million in state funds and $38.7 million in matches.)

Seven of the 11 winners will need voter approval of bond issues in November to raise their matching money.

Last year the board designated only one alternate – the Akron school district – where voters approved a bond issue in November 2010 despite not knowing if the district would receive state money. Akron did win an award after voters in three districts – Elbert, Florence and Peyton – rejected bond issues, forfeiting the state money they had been awarded by the construction board.

Given the uncertainty of bond issues, board chair Mary Wickersham said, “It’s really important to have a substantial backup list.”

Here are the districts recommended for lease-purchase grants:

  • Prairie (Weld County) – $16.5 million for a new PK-12 school ($13 million state; needs bond)
  • Sanford (San Luis Valley) – $22 million for major PK-12 school renovations ($21 million state; need bond)
  • Rocky Mountain Deaf School (Golden charter) – $13.4 million for a new school ($13.2 million state)
  • Big Sandy (Simla) – $23.5 million for a new PK-12 school ($20.5 million state; needs bond)
  • Eagle County Charter Academy – $12.2 million for a new K-8 school ($9.3 million state)
  • Ellicott (Calhan) – $18.2 million middle school replacement ($15.8 million state; bond needed)
  • Ross Montessori Charter School (Carbondale) – $11.8 million new PK-8 school ($10.8 million state)
  • Idalia (far eastern plains) – $15 million for major renovations of PK-12 school ($11.1 million state; bond needed)
  • Horizons K-8 Alternative Charter School (Boulder) – $6 million in renovations ($5.5 million state)
  • Elbert (south of Kiowa) – $20 million new PK-12 school ($16.3 million state; needs bond and lost bond last year)
  • Southwest Open Charter School (Cortez) – $11 million for major improvements ($7.4 million state)

The designated alternate projects (in order) are Lake County, Sheridan, Ignacio, Peyton and Englewood.

The major project that didn’t make the cut was a $83.4 million renovation of several schools proposed by the Montezuma-Cortez district.

The construction board also recommended 25 cash grants totaling $26 million, including $16.4 million in state funds and $9.5 million in local matches. Cash grants generally are for smaller projects like roof and boiler repairs.

But the board did award cash awards of $5.5 million ($3 million state) for a new building at the Corridor Community Academy, a charter in Bennett, and of $2.7 million ($2.4 million state) for renovations and an addition at the Paradox Valley Charter School, which is in an isolated area on the Utah border. (West End, the district that charters the Paradox School, didn’t make the cut with its separate bid for a $22.2 million lease-purchase project.)

Five of the 11 lease-purchase awards went to charter schools, and the two charters recommended for cash grants will receive nearly a third of the state funds allocated to that category. The Colorado League of Charter Schools has been critical of the BEST process in the past, and league president Jim Griffin still has complaints.

“The quality analysis and information provided by staff was at times overshadowed and perhaps even disregarded by individual board members’ personal perceptions of specific applicants and projects. We are dismayed that for a second year a meritorious proposal from the Aspen Community Charter School was not awarded seemingly due to factors beyond their control – their Aspen address, and being authorized by a school district that’s not in a position to contribute to their facilities needs,” he said in a statement on Friday.

The Aspen school is in a log building on a hilly rural site. During deliberations board members expressed concerns about the high, county-mandated site preparation costs involved in building a new school.

The total of cash and lease-purchase grants (not counting alternates) is $198.8 million, $158.6 million in state funds and $40 million in local matches.

There were more than 70 applications filed with a total cost of about $553 million, including some $372 in state funds and $181 in proposed local matches. The board began review of 2011-12 applications Monday morning and wrapped up at mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Selection process arduous and tense

The selection process is a high-stakes one, because many districts and charters, especially smaller ones, have few if any other options for construction funding.

“The BEST program is our only hope,” Sanford Superintendent Kevin Edgar told the board.

One board member said the board has been lobbied, and legislators submitted letters of support for a couple of projects.

Unavoidably, most applicants come away disappointed. As Wickersham said, “We understand what everyone has gone through to get in this room. It’s just that we have to pick. We have requests for almost twice as many dollars as we have available.”

The first two days of board meetings drew crowds of 70 or more – superintendents, administrators, architects, planners and others with an interest in the outcome. By Wednesday morning the crowd had thinned, as the board neared its final decisions and many projects already were out of the running.

The process for getting a BEST grant is an arduous one that climaxes during the board’s multi-day selection process every June. Some prospective applicants start working with staff of the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance a year ahead of time, and all applicants have to file detailed paperwork. The summary book prepared for the board runs to more than 900 pages.

Division staff evaluate and sort applications on a variety of factors, including building condition, building suitability for education, applicant ability to provide a match, availability of financial reserves and other criteria.

Members of Capital Construction Assistance Board
Norwood Robb, Adele Willson and Lyndon Burnett, members of the Capital Construction Board, listen to discussion on June 27, 2011.

The board changed its process this year to give fuller consideration to all applications. In the past the board tentatively approved projects as it went through the list, keeping a tally of how much of the available funding had been used. Once the financial target was reached, remaining projects didn’t get much discussion.

This year the board went through each list, cash and lease-purchase, twice. On the first pass division director Ted Hughes gave a brief description of each project, and district and school representatives were allowed two minutes to explain their needs. This was the first year applicants were allowed to speak.

Hughes’ descriptions reflected the big needs of most applicants – he repeatedly used phrases like “a lot of deficiencies,” “the end of its life” and “lots of issues” to describe existing buildings.

He and applicants recited long lists of specific problems – crumbling modular classrooms, asbestos and mercury contamination, schools next to landfills, schools located in strip malls, one-way corridors, no sidewalks between buildings and more.

On the second pass through each list, the board decided whether or not each project would go on a “short list.” No running tally was kept of how much funding had been used up. Board members also could ask questions of applicants.

Finally, each board member ranked the projects on the short lists, and the lists were sorted based on averaging of individual member rankings. Only then did the board go through the lists and select projects until the available funds were used up.

While the board has discretion of choose projects based on several building-condition, financial and other criteria, the BEST law gives top priority to projects that address health and safety issues.

The process begins in earnest again next Dec. 2, when the application window opens for 2012-13 grants. The program has only another year or two of substantial grants. After that most of the BEST revenue, which comes from state school lands and the lottery, will have to be devoted to paying off previously approved lease-purchase projects. to March 5 next window


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.