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

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

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: