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

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”


Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”