Who Is In Charge

Lobato 8/23: Trial tone set to shift

The plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit ended presentation of their case with another story of a struggling school district, just hours before lawyers for the state will begin presenting their case with testimony from Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.

Lobato v. State illustrationMapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio was the final witness presented by the plaintiff-intervenors in the case, a group of parents from four districts, including Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan. The districts aren’t plaintiffs.

The larger original group of plaintiffs in the case includes parents and several school districts, including Aurora and Jefferson County. Both sets of plaintiffs share the central claim that the state’s school funding system doesn’t meet the constitutional requirement for a “thorough and uniform” system of schools, as detailed in the education standards set in law by the legislature.

The second group of plaintiffs, represented by lawyers from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also are stressing the inadequacy of state funding for English language learners, poor students, early childhood education and school buildings.

Ciancio’s testimony followed a now-familiar pattern set by superintendents of other districts. Lawyers walk a witness through a detailed list of questions about district poverty rates, percentages of English language learners, achievement statistics, budget challenges, aging computers and crumbling buildings, invariably ending with a question that requires a superintendent to acknowledge that with current resources he or she can’t ensure that all students in the district will meet state achievement requirements.

The final piece of the pattern is cross-examination by lawyers for the state, who ask each witness glass-half-full questions about awards won by the district, achievement gains, new buildings, tax increases approved and the like.

Mapleton is an 8,000-student (including online) district in southwest Adams County, next to Thornton and north of Denver. Its students are 72 percent Hispanic, 37 percent English language learners and 61 percent free lunch, according to exhibits shown during Ciancio’s testimony.

Mapleton Public Schools

Those percentages have grown significantly in just a decade.

Ciancio said the combination of those characteristics “creates a very complex environment for classroom teachers.”

She said that with appropriate resources “I know … that all of them (at-risk) students would reach proficiency” but that “there’s just not enough to go around.

“I’m proud of the fact that we are able to do so much with so little.”

Other witnesses

Earlier in the day, Mary Wickersham, chair of the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, testified at length about school building needs around the state. Wickersham, who helped write the legislation that created the Building Excellent Schools Today grant programs, said, “it has not” solved the state’s school building needs.

She noted that the statewide building survey done after the BEST law passed found nearly $18 billion in school renovation and construction needs.

On Monday, MALDEF lawyers tried to paint a broader picture of demographic changes in the state’s schools through the expert-witness testimony of Steve Murdock, a Rice University professor and former director of the U.S. Census.

Murdock testified about a report he compiled for the plaintiffs, a document that notes the growing Hispanic population in Colorado, especially in younger age groups.

“Our overall conclusion is that the state of Colorado is undergoing very dramatic changes in its population … and unless steps are taken to ensure that all people” receive an adequate education, “We’re looking at the potential for Colorado to be a poor and uncompetitive state,” Murdock said.

Highlights of the day:

QUOTE: “The most expensive education is one that kids drop out of.” – Mapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio

MANEUVERING: Trials like the Lobato case are elaborately scripted events, which lists of potential witnesses and the nature of their testimony traded by the lawyers long before trial starts. Lawyers typically take depositions of opposing witnesses and research their claims.

So there was some surprise Tuesday when Assistant Attorney General Nick Heinke got up to say the state wanted permission to call former state Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, as a rebuttal witness. She had not previously been on the state’s list of potential witnesses.

Lawyers for both sets of plaintiffs raised all sorts of objections, and District Judge Sheila Rappoport told Heinke the state would have to submit a formal written request and other documents before she would rule. He has until Thursday to do that.

Heinke said Anderson recently approached the attorney general’s office, saying she wanted to testify to rebut previous witness testimony about the school finance act of 1994. The plainspoken Anderson is generally respected as someone who knows her way around school finance.

DOCUMENTS: Read Mapleton’s three-year performance report and take a look at its improvement plan.

UPCOMING: Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia is expected to be the headline witness as the state opens its defense case.

According to a disclosure filed by the attorney general’s office before the trial started, “The lieutenant governor may testify that while financial resources are necessary in the delivery of quality education opportunities, other factors also impact the successful delivery of quality education opportunities to K-12 students, such as effective classroom teachers and school building leaders. The lieutenant governor may also testify that additional funding for K-12 education does not necessarily equate to improved quality education opportunities, and that additional money alone may not close achievement gaps or increase graduation rates.

“He may testify that, even so, the current budgetary limitations on K-12 funding must not excuse districts from delivering quality education opportunities to Colorado’s school children.”

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.