Who Is In Charge

Bills move, shrink, die

Bills proposing a minimum amount of physical activity for elementary school students and making it slightly easier for charter schools to use district buildings advanced in the Colorado legislature Wednesday.

Those two bills featured skirmishing over the eternal issue of local control of schools, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue.

Later action came in two House committees, where a plan to revamp the board of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association was passed and a bill trying to nudge schools towards greater energy efficiency was killed.

Also Wednesday, two Democratic Joint Budget Committee members introduced Senate Bill 11-184, which would create a 60-day tax amnesty next summer during which people who owe back state taxes could pay them without incurring penalties and at half the normal interest rate.

Revenue from the amnesty, estimated at about $15 million, would go to the State Education Fund. Legislative Democrats, hoping to blunt Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in 2011-12 school spending, are looking for spare change anywhere they can find it, and the measure is the first bill on the issue.

The sponsors are Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, both of Denver, along with a lengthy list of Democratic cosponsors in both houses.

Wednesday snapshots

  • Mandatory physical activity in elementary schools – House Bill 11-1069 was passed 6-2 by the Senate Education Committee.
  • Charter school access to vacant district buildings – House Bill 11-1055 won preliminary House floor approval on a voice vote.
  • Membership changes for the PERA board – House Bill 11-1248 was passed 7-6 by the House Finance Committee.
  • Energy-efficient schools – House Bill 11-1204 was postponed indefinitely on a 5-3 party-line vote by the House State Affairs Committee.

Wednesday details

Physical activity bill chewed over but passes

Some of the yes votes were lukewarm, but the Senate Education Committee Wednesday voted 6-2 for House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require at least 10 hours a month of physical activity for elementary school students.

Representatives of the Colorado Health Foundation, the Colorado Public Health Association and the Colorado Children’s Campaign all testified in favor of the bill, citing statistics about the growing problem of childhood obesity and the health benefits of physical activity.

But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, urged committee members to vote against the bill. “CASB’s opposition and the opposition of our members have nothing to do with the research” about youth obesity,” Urschel said. “There’s no question that we are in the middle of an epidemic of fatness.”

“We do not believe it is the state’s role to tell districts how to use their time.”

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said, “I’m a little surprised you’re still opposing it,” given that the House stripped out lengthy requirements for data districts would have had to report to the state.

Urschel said, “We do worry about how it will go in future years,” raising the fear that future legislatures will add to mandates established by the bill.

“I don’t understand what the big burden is,” said Hudak, noting that the bill includes a very broad definition of physical activity, including students walking around while on field trips. “In fact, it is way too weak,” Hudak said.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said to Urschel, “I don’t know what you’re afraid of. … It’s not a mandate in the sense that you’re thinking about it.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, agreed the bill is “so watered down” but said the issue should be left to local school boards.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, commented, “I don’t think it’s going to make one bit of difference if the bill passes or not in terms of children getting exercise.” Local school officials are “going to roll their eyes and say, ‘Here comes something else. Can’t the state leave us alone?’”

Renfroe and Spence were the only no votes on the bill. All committee Democrats plus Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, voted for it. Heath and King indicated they were lukewarm supporters.

Freshman Rep. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver and a doctor, is Senate prime sponsor of the bill.

After the hour of discussion, chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, jokingly asked Aguilar, “Senator, do you want to come back to Education?”

“Never again,” Aguilar joked.

Charter facilities bill keeps shrinking

Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield

While Democrats were voting against local control and Republicans were supporting it in Senate Education, the roles were reversed on the floor of the House.

As originally introduced by freshman Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, HB 11-1055 would have allowed charter schools to request use of vacant district buildings and land and, if refused, appeal to the Department of Education. If the department ruled the building was suitable for a school, the charter would get it rent-free. There was a similar provision giving Charter School Institute schools access to vacant state land and buildings.

The bill is a legislative priority for the Colorado League of Charter Schools but has raised concerns among other groups. The House Education Committee amended the bill to take vacant land out of the measure and require charters to pay CDE for the costs of building evaluations.

On the floor Wednesday, Beezley said his measure “is a simple, humble bill. … Essentially it lets a public school occupy a public school building. … I would urge we not let those assets go to waste.”

Beezley then proceeded to slenderize the bill further with successful amendments that took state buildings out of the measure entirely, created an additional appeal process to the State Board of Education by either a charter or district and established an exemption for districts that have long-term facilities plans that include charter schools.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, opposed the bill

House Democrats said that last amendment was so significant that the bill ought to go back to House Ed for a more deliberate review than could be provided on the floor. 
That transfer attempt failed after lengthy debate.

Some Democrats’ comments had a districts vs. charters tone, and at one point House Ed Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, went to the microphone to say, “What we keep losing sight of is that charter schools are public schools.”

As with the physical activity bill, the measure’s potential impact would appear to be limited. A legislative staff analysis estimates there are 20 vacant buildings in six districts around the state, with an average of 10 new charters opening a year.

PERA board overhaul advances

The House Finance Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday evening to send House Bill 11-1248 to the floor, but comments by two Republicans who voted yes indicate sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, still has some convincing to do.

The bill would change the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association board to six outside members appointed by the governor, seven association members and the state treasurer.

The current board has three gubernatorial appointees, the treasurer and 11 elected association members.

Kerr, a critic of last year’s PERA reform legislation who has doubts about the association’s plan to achieve solvency in 30 years, believes taxpayers deserve a greater voice on the board.

New Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton testified for the bill, saying, “This is not a critique of PERA’s current board. What it is about is ensuring diversity.”

A handful of PERA retirees and board chair Carole Wright opposed the bill, saying they fear the change would politicize the board.

That seemed to strike a chord with Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “The question is which composition of the board is best to resist political pressures. I’m not sure appointees are the best ones to do that.”

Board members are trustees with the fiduciary responsibility to oversee pension fund investments. Contribution rates and benefits can be changed only by the legislature. Some past legislative decisions have had nasty consequences in economic downturns.

Swalm voted yes but specified that was “only for now.” Freshman Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, also voted yes and also said “only for now.”

The committee spent nearly three hours on the bill Wednesday evening – on top of 4 ½ hours spent earlier on other bills.

Energy efficiency bill strikes out for second year

Rep. Andy Kerr, R-Lakewood, didn’t get very far with his 2010 proposal that new schools be built to Energy Star standards.

His milder 2011 plan, House Bill 11-1204, met the same fate Wednesday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which killed it 5-3. This year’s bill would have required schools built or significantly renovated after Jan. 1, 2012, meet federal Energy Star standards, be designed in consultation with the Governor’s Energy Office or have a design team that includes at least one person skilled in energy efficiency.

Kerr got a polite and lengthy hearing from the committee, but various Republican members weren’t impressed with the idea, saying many school districts and architects are already designing energy efficient buildings and so there’s no need for a state mandate.

Lobbyist Jason Hopfer testified against the bill on behalf of the Douglas County School District.

For the record

Lawmakers Wednesday acted on several other education bills, many of them minor or technical. Bills of interest included:

  • House Bill 11-1169 on sharing of threat information by campus police – House 47-18 final approval
  • Senate Bill 11-029 on streamlining of reports by the State Land Board (the manager of state school lands) – Passed 13-0 by House Education Committee.

House Bill 11-1048, the proposal to allow families to take tax credits for private school tuition or the costs of home schooling, was again laid over in the House Finance Committee.

Sponsor Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, told Education News Colorado the bill will be heard Thursday. In a bid to get the bill out of committee, Swalm said he will offer an amendment requiring students to spend a year in public school before becoming eligible for the credit and another amendment that would slightly reduce the tax credit and give districts $500 for each student they lose because of the program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”