School bus safety

Fatal Tennessee school bus crash reopens conversation on the cost of seat belts

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The deaths of at least five elementary school students in a school bus crash in Chattanooga have state lawmakers talking about revisiting a seat belt proposal previously tabled because of its price tag.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said Monday’s deaths of a kindergartener, a first-grader and three fourth-graders bring the need for school bus seat belts into sharper focus, regardless of the costs.

“I know it’s expensive,” McCormick told The Tennessean on Tuesday, noting that education is the state’s biggest budget item. “(But) if we can’t guarantee or do as much as we can to guarantee the safety of these kids as they go to and from school, then the rest of it is pretty useless.”

Gov. Bill Haslam agreed that school transportation needs to be reviewed in Tennessee. “It’s time to have that conversation,” he told reporters in Nashville.

Phasing in seat belts on school buses would cost the state $5.5 million every year for 10 years, as well as $33 million in annual local spending, according to an estimate that accompanied a 2015 bill.

That proposal, sponsored by former Rep. Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, was filed after two students and a teacher’s assistant were killed in a Knox County crash in 2014. The measure would have required all of the state’s school buses to be retrofitted with seat belts by 2023, but the seat belt provision never made it out of a House transportation subcommittee. The legislature later approved a scaled-down version that increased the fine and jail time for texting while driving a school bus with students on board. Authorities said texting was a factor in the Knox County crash.

School bus safety has been a persistent issue in Tennessee. In the last week alone,  two non-fatal crashes were in the news, including one in which a Chester County bus rolled over en route to a Beta Club convention in Nashville, sending 23 students to the hospital.

Within days, the fatal Chattanooga crash had state and local authorities rethinking bus safety measures.

The accident occurred Monday afternoon as the bus carried 35 students home from Woodmore Elementary School. The vehicle struck a house and wrapped around a tree. Its 24-year-old driver has been charged with vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving as authorities sought to pinpoint the cause.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees school bus safety, only recently changed its stance on seat belts. For decades, the federal agency’s leaders were adamant that seat belts were unnecessary on school buses and in fact could heighten danger for students by making it harder to evacuate crash sites. But last year, administrators changed the agency’s stance, though stopping short of requiring seat belts.

A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”

Building Plans

Bond defeat in Jefferson County puts Alameda school renovations on hold — again

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Students move through the crowded cafeteria at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School in Lakewood.

Of all the Jefferson County schools pinning their hopes on the district’s bond and tax measures on the November ballot, few had as much to gain — or lose — as Alameda International.

The cafeteria is so cramped, the school spreads lunch over four periods and some students stand or sit in the hallways to eat. The gym locker rooms don’t have enough lockers. The school is lacking appropriate space to add career classes and teachers are forced to share classrooms.

When voters turned down the $535 million bond request this year for Jeffco Public Schools, Alameda International lost out on getting fixes to those problems as part of a $20 million renovation at the school that has been on hold since at least 2008. The district described the work that the bond would have covered as fulfilling a “past promise.”

Now the principal, Susie Van Scoyk, worries that some of the momentum of the school’s improvements from the last seven years will slow and that retaining teachers at the high-needs school will become more difficult.

The defeat stings more because the school is changing. Last year Alameda International expanded from being a stand-alone high school to including middle school grades.

“Our building isn’t built for younger students,” Van Scoyk said. “Middle school students have different developmental and social needs.”

Jeffco is working on updating plans following the failure of the district’s two tax requests — the bond and a smaller tax increase known as a mill levy override. Van Scoyk said she will continue to be a loud proponent for her school’s needs.

“I believe the students here deserve the same type of facility other students have,” Van Scoyk said. “But we will do the very best with what we do have.”

Alameda International, a school on Jeffco’s eastern boundary with Denver, currently has more than 1,200 students. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch — a measure of poverty — and about 22 percent are learning English as a second language. It’s a different population from the suburban district’s average school.

“This is really more of an urban school, with the needs of an urban school,” Van Scoyk said. “I can’t go to my PTA and say ‘Hey, we really need to or want to buy new science textbooks or we want to get laptops, or iPads.’ We just don’t have that capacity here.”

The school’s preliminary state ratings this year show Alameda’s high school grades moved up to the performance category for the first time in more than five years. In part, the rating is likely influenced by the school’s rising graduation rate. In 2015, the state recorded Alameda’s graduation rate at more than 92 percent, up from about 71 percent in 2010.

“The students and staff really have been remarkable,” Van Scoyk said.

But lately she says she’s had countless conversations with younger teachers who say they can’t afford to stay in Jeffco if they can make more in neighboring districts. The district’s mill levy override — a second property tax request that voters turned down — would have maintained and possibly increased teacher salaries.

“I want to keep the really good teachers we have here,” Van Scoyk said. “We know what makes a difference for a child is a high-quality teacher.”

Jeffco’s school board members voiced the same sentiment at a recent board meeting discussing with staff what should be prioritized as the district figures out what cuts might be necessary following the defeat of the tax requests. Many said that teacher retention should be prioritized with what money the district has.

Looking back, forward

Alameda’s school building on South Wadsworth Boulevard has been expanded many times since it was built in 1961 to try to accommodate more students, but some original shared spaces like the lunchroom and the gym locker rooms haven’t kept up.

The school has two gyms, but the locker rooms don’t have enough lockers for students. Teachers require students to change for physical education classes, but assistant principal Williams said they can’t penalize students since many don’t have a place to store a change of clothes.

Outside the building, school leaders would like more open space for the middle school student’s activities. Right now, most middle school students play on an open space behind the tennis courts, but between the building’s additions, the bleachers and the tennis courts, the area isn’t easily visible to the staff watching the students, so it takes more adults to be outside watching kids around each corner.

Inside, staff and administrators closely monitor their radios because the school’s announcement system is old and doesn’t work in the cafeteria. If something else is being broadcast through the speakers in the school’s auditorium, the announcements won’t be heard in there either. That presents a safety issue if something has to be communicated in an emergency, such as an evacuation.

Some of those issues were expected to be fixed as part of the phase two renovations that would have been paid for by the district’s bond. The work was put on hold when voters in 2008 rejected the school district’s tax measures that year, too.

In 2012, voters did approve a $99 million bond request, but the smaller amount covered more immediate deferred maintenance across the district, not big renovation projects.

Alameda’s turnaround efforts started seven years ago centered on the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Two years ago school leaders started expanding on the program by offering the IB program’s career classes too.

It started with health career classes. Students in the career pathway can graduate with a certificate in bilingual medical terminology giving them the chance to work in medical offices as translators who are proficient in language and the context.

Students also asked for an arts career option and one for STEM careers, representing those in science, technology, engineering and math. The arts classes just started this year. The STEM classes are now on hold. School leaders said they were hoping to use bond money to build or retrofit classrooms for engineering courses.

“To have a STEM pathway, we don’t have the type of facility and equipment that some of our neighboring schools have,” Van Scoyk said.

If the bond had passed this year, the renovation of the building also would have likely addressed the building’s layout that is causing stress on the new seventh through 12th grade model.

School leaders are juggling schedules and class locations to keep younger students away from older students. Although the building can house more students, keeping kids in separate parts of the school by grade level means space is short in some places where it can be enough in others. Williams, in charge of the master schedule, has three white boards in his office that help him track what teachers are in what classroom at what time.

It’s not ideal, but school leaders say they are managing for now.

“Kids keep coming everyday,” Van Scoyk said. “They have to be our focus.”