Who Is In Charge

Aspen dispute back to construction board

Members of the State Board of Education have jawboned the state school construction board into taking yet another look at how much money the Aspen Community School will have to put up to get funds for replacement of an aging log building.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy of the state’s Capital Construction Assistance Division.

Every August, the state board ratifies the annual list of construction grants recommended by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which oversees the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Approval of the list usually is a formality, but this year the process has been derailed by a legal catch-22 that snagged Aspen Community, a 130-student charter perched on a mountaintop in the rural Woody Creek area south of Aspen.

The school is housed in a 42-year-old log building. School director Skye Skinner told SBE members the school “is an utterly failing facility” and that “in the spring, some classrooms are flooded by snowmelt.”

Aspen Community has made three applications for BEST grants, and the construction board in June included the school on the list of 2013 finalists. But members declined to grant a waiver that would have reduced the amount of matching funds the school had to provide.

The school was seeking support for a $9 million project to replace the log building.

The original match was calculated at 54 percent of the total cost, which would have meant a state grant of $4.2 million. But a new state law that changed matching requirements for charters drove that to 81 percent, something the school was informed about only two weeks before the construction board’s meeting in late June.

The construction board approved the project with a state share of $1.7 million but twice deadlocked 4-4 on motions to grant the school a waiver and keep the match at 54 percent. One board member was absent.

When the construction board met again on July 19 to finalize the list, Vinny Badolato of the Colorado League of Charter Schools asked members to reconsider the waiver, but the board took no action.

The new law was intended to lower matching percentages for many charters, but the revised formula has the opposite effect for Aspen Community.

The league formally appealed to the State Board of Education. Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and author of the law that changed the matching formula, wrote a letter supporting the appeal.

Members of the state board on Wednesday were clearly sympathetic to Aspen Community, but it also was clear they didn’t want to overrule the construction board.

“It seems to me, if there’s some way for the BEST board to play a role in changing the outcome … that would be the cleanest strategy,” said state board chair Bob Schaffer, a Republican who represents the Fort Collins area.

Schaffer and other state board members repeatedly prodded Lyndon Burnett, a member of the BEST board, to commit to having that board hold a special meeting to once again consider Aspen Community’s waiver request.

Aspen Community School
Aspen Community School

Burnett, who’s also a member of the Agate school board, finally got the message, saying, “That’s fine. We can get a meeting together.”

The nine-member BEST board is in transition, with some members leaving and some new members not yet appointed. So the board currently has only seven voting members.

The timeline for reconsideration is tight. Most of the BEST grant finalists need to hold bond elections to raise their matches, and the deadline for setting those elections is Sept. 6, according to Ted Hughes, director of the state Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance.

So the BEST board will have to meet again, and the State Board of Education will have to convene – probably by teleconference – to ratify the final list before the end of August.

“I was hoping for a decision” from state board members, Skinner told Education News Colorado. “I’m glad to hear they’re sympathetic. Now we will wait and see.”

The construction board’s original recommended list of major projects totaled about $273 million, including some $184 million in state support. The board also approved 13 smaller grants totaling $9.3 million, including $6.3 million in state funds.

The large-project list, in priority order, includes these schools and districts:

West End (Naturita), Elbert 200, Sheridan, Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Lake County (Leadville), Platte Valley (Ovid), Hi Plains (Kit Carson County), Dolores, Lamar, Otis, Fort Morgan, Buena Vista, Genoa-Hugo, Fort Lupton, Montezuma-Cortez, Aurora, Aspen Community and Ross Montessori charter in Carbondale.

Four projects are on an alternates list in case one or more of the finalists loses its bond issue and can’t raise the local match. Alternates are Denver, Greeley, Calhan and Salida.

The BEST program receives most of its funding from a portion of revenues generated by state school trust lands. Larger projects are funded by lease-purchase agreements that are paid off over time by state and local funds. Smaller projects are paid for with direct state cash grants that districts combine with their own funds.

The state education board did approve the BEST board’s list of cash-funded smaller projects, which aren’t involved in the Aspen Community problem.

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.”

reaction

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.”