Who Is In Charge

BEST board approves $127.4 million

The state Public School Capital Construction Assistance Board has recommended $127.4 million in lease-purchase financing and cash grants in the first large round of funding under the Build Excellent Schools Today program.

Projects receiving funding a swimming pool building in Deer Trail, an historic school in Silverton where the heat doesn’t work, the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, a school with large propane tanks next to the playground, a new PRE-12 campus in Fairplay, a Cedaredge elementary school that’s bisected by a street and a Routt County charter school that now uses a yurt.

The most successful large districts in getting projects approved were Mapleton and Westminster, while Douglas County, Buena Vista and Salida didn’t fare so well.

Mapleton had the largest single project approved, a $53.1 million renovation of its Skyview campus, which would include $31.3 million in state BEST funds and $21.7 million in local funds, for which the district hopes to winner voter approval in November. The district lost a bond election last fall. The Park County project in Fairplay was the second largest at $30.1 million state and local.

The largest project not funded as a proposed $44.8 million plan of renovations and new high school construction in Monte Vista.

In general, money for large projects is used to pay off multi-year lease-purchase agreements. Smaller projects get direct cash grants. Applicants are expected to provide local matches, but state law provides various formulas for different kinds of matches and allows the board to waive matches in some instances. (The total above does not include local matches.)

The board recommended funding 51 of the 91 applications submitted. In a few cases, applicants didn’t receive the full amounts.

Five charter school applications were accepted; five others get no funding.

A system used to rank projects gives priority to health and safety needs, and the board funded all projects that had received such a ranking. Projects that didn’t have a strong health and safety element made up the bulk of those that didn’t get funded.

The board’s recommendations now go to the State Board of Education, which will make the final decision on grants at its August meeting. Lease-purchase funds won’t be available until next year, after the state treasurer completes financing arrangements.

Applications for the next big round of grants are expected to open next January and be considered by the construction board in June 2010. That round will be the first after completion of a statewide assessment and ranking of the needs of all school buildings in the state.

Modifications to the original BEST law allowed the construction board to make grants before the assessment was done. But, several members said repeatedly that it was difficult to make awards without knowing where projects might ultimately rank on the statewide list. Some applications considered this week didn’t make it because the board wants to see where they ranked on the assessment.

The board has made some smaller grants, but the ones recommended during two days of meetings Wednesday and Thursday were the first large group since the BEST program went into effect last year.

The BEST program is funded by a portion of revenues from state lands and not by general tax revenues. Several of the projects recommended this week are expected to use special federal stimulus bonds, which have no interest costs for the state.

Most interesting awards

Deer Trail: $247,000 in state cash and a $165,000 local match will be used to renovate the unsafe wing of the school that contains a swimming pool used by students and community members for miles around. Some board members were skeptical, but the panel still approved the money. The main school building is expected to be recommended for replacement in a future round of grants.

Silverton: $9.5 million in state funds and a $2.4 million local match will fund a lease-purchase plan to renovate the historic school that serves about 60 students. The building’s furnace failed last winter, forcing the use of space heaters. The town is isolated, particularly in winter, leaving no other options for the town children.

Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind: The historic campus will get a $10.6 million makeover. (There’s no match because the school is a state agency and can’t raise funds on its own, as a school district can.)

Woodlin: $88,593 in state cash and $37,968 in local money will be used two 8,000 gallon propane tanks away from the school playground.

Cedaredge: A lease-purchase deal funded with $8.7 million from the state and a $2.6 million local match will fund major renovations at the elementary school, including unification of the campus on one side of the street that now runs through it.

North Routt Charter: This 63-student PRE-8 charter will be able to replace its yurt (a Mongolian-style tent) thanks to a lease-purchase funded with $3.1 million in state funds and $1.6 million in local money.

Winners and also rans

Mapleton scored big with approval of three projects totaling nearly $54 million in state and local funds

Two roof repair projects in Westminster total about $2 million from state and local money.

Large proposals from Buena Vista and Salida weren’t funded.

Douglas County submitted five proposals and was granted only one, for about $4.5 million in upgrades to the high school in Castle Rock. The district lost a big bond issue last year and is considering another attempt this fall. The district is challenged by growth and crowding, not as high a priority for the board as health and safety.

The Park County project in Fairplay got $30.1 million, split evenly between the state and the district.

The Alta Vista charter school in Prowers County got $6.1 million for a lease-purchase, almost all from the state. The Twin Peaks Academy in Boulder got nothing for a similar-sized project.
The rejected Monte Vista plan would have cost $44.8 million.

List of applicants, proposal details and program rules (514-page PDF)

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: