Who Is In Charge

23 BEST bids advance

Nearly two dozen applications for cash grants have been “short listed” by state Capital Construction Assistance Board, meeting this week to weigh applications for 2011-12 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

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 started work Monday and on Tuesday morning finished its initial review of applications for cash grants, which generally are used for smaller projects like roof repairs, new boilers and upgraded alarm systems.

Later in the day, the board began review of lease-purchase applications, which are made for new schools, large additions and other high-cost projects.

The board received 42 applications for cash grants totaling about $44 million in overall project costs.

Both cash and lease-purchase projects are funded with a combination of state and local money. Applicants receive full cash grants upon final approval. For lease-purchase projects, state and local money is pooled to pay back over several years the investors who provide construction funds.

The board’s cash short list includes 23 projects totaling about $20 million, including $12.3 million in state funds. The board won’t make a final decision until after it’s completed review of all applications for both cash and lease-purchase projects. The board’s ultimate recommendations go to the State Board of Education, which makes the final decision on grants.

Among the larger projects on the short list are $2.7 million for renovation at the Paradox Valley Charter School, $2.6 million for various projects in the Holyoke schools, $2.4 million for roof projects in the Commerce City schools and $1.8 million for a new roof at the Byers school. (The totals include both state and local funds.)

About half a dozen other large projects weren’t put on the short list for cash grants but will be considered for lease-purchase awards.

The projects in this year’s list of applications have a total cost of $553.6 million, with $372 million requested in state aid and $181.5 million promised in local matching funds. In addition to deciding to allocate about $12 million as the state’s share of cash grants, the board Monday set a ceiling of about $180 million in state funds for lease-purchase grants.

“Unfortunately, our choices are constrained by one thing – revenue,” board chair Mary Wickersham said, reminded applicants that many projects, no matter how worthy, won’t get funded.

Grants judged on multiple factors

The board makes grants based on a complicated set of factors, including building condition, suitability for educational use and a variety of financial factors. By law, projects involving health and safety get top priority.

The first two days of the board’s meeting, held at the PPA Events Center in west Denver, drew a crowd of about 70, including superintendents, other administrators, architects, contractors and others.

“It’s a high-stakes process,’ said one board member, noting that most districts and charters have no other alternatives for construction financing.

For the first time since the BEST program started, the board this year allowed applicants to give brief presentations and respond to board questions. Applicants seemed to have prepared carefully since most had no trouble staying within the two-minute time limit.

Discussion of each application was accompanied by a slide show of construction plans and current building conditions, showing a depressing succession of leaky roofs, cracked foundations, water-stained ceilings, patched pipes, moldy modular classrooms and other structural problems.

See this recent article for more details on 2011-12 applications and on the BEST program.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

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.”