Who Is In Charge

Campaign bill gets its hearing

A House committee spent more than an hour Thursday on a bill that proposes to limit campaign contributions in school board races, but a vote was put off because the chairman had lost two of five Republican members, leaving Democrats with a temporary majority.

Arturo Jimenez and Beth McCann
Denver school board member Arturo Jimenez (left) and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver
The House State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee now has the bill on its calendar for Jan. 26. After Thursday’s session Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver and prime sponsor of House Bill 12-1067, said she expects to have a hard time getting the measure out of committee. She lost a similar bill on the House floor last year.

There currently are no limits on contributions to school board and Regional Transportation District candidates, and HB 12-1067 would set $500 contribution limits for individuals and political action committees and a $5,000 limit for small-donor committees. (The difference in amount parallels limits for contributions to legislative candidates.)

“It’s a matter of leveling the playing field for these candidates,” McCann told the committee. “The potential for abuse and improper influence is great when there are no limits.”

McCann then rattled off the names of some of bigger contributors in last year’s Denver Public Schools board races, which set a record for fundraising (see story).

Daily roundup

“This isn’t just a Denver problem,” McCann argued, noting large contributions in some Douglas and Jefferson county board races. “I believe this will be spreading across the state.”

Two Denver board members, Arturo Jimenez and Jeanne Kaplan, testified in favor of the bill. Jimenez, who won a narrow victory against well-funded opponent Jennifer Draper Carson, said average parents “don’t want to run because they see the outrageous amounts of money” being spent.

Kaplan said, “What we saw happen in these elections was pretty distasteful.” Kaplan and Jimenez opposed the “reform” slate of candidates that raised the large war chests last year.

Only one witness, Rick Coolidge of the Department of State, testified against the bill. He expressed concern that the bill’s proposed changes in reporting deadlines would further complicate the state’s already confusing deadlines for different kinds of offices and campaign committees.

State Affairs Republicans seemed skeptical of the bill.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, repeatedly said he thinks setting limits would just push campaign contributions into 527 and independent expenditure committees, where it’s harder to trace.

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, suggested to Jimenez that his victory proved that campaign spending isn’t decisive in a race.

Some Republicans also were unhappy with the higher limit for small-donor committees, a favorite tool of teachers unions, and a variety of other political groups.

After testimony ended, Chair Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, abruptly closed the hearing, saying he wanted to take the vote when all panel members were present. Two Republicans had left the meeting, leaving four Democrats and three Republicans in the room.

Nibbling around the future of BEST

A discussion in the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon may have provided a preview of later debates this year over the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.

The subject came up during a briefing by Bill Ryan, director of the State Land Board, which manages 2.8 million acres of state lands that yield some $65 million a year in revenue. Nearly all of that goes to either the BEST program or to supplement state funding of school district operations.

One of the things Ryan stressed was that annual revenues can fluctuate – he called last year’s $120 million an aberration because of energy leasing in northeastern Colorado – and that mineral and energy revenues “depend on the sale of a depleting asset.”

By law BEST receives half the annual revenues from leases, rents and royalties on state lands. The program has about $29 million a year in payments on the lease-purchase agreements used to build and renovate schools. There’s a ceiling on $40 million on the amount BEST can obligate.

Those numbers have some legislators worried that a bad year for land revenues might force lawmakers to come up with other money to meet BEST obligations. There’s talk of legislation to scale back BEST.

“The BEST program is a wonderful program, but there are some consequences … if the land board was unable to pay the debt service,” Ryan said.

Some lawmakers also are concerned that the land board’s permanent fund has been flat at $600 million because revenues have been diverted to BEST and school spending. (Once revenues go into the permanent fund they can’t be spent; only interest generated by the fund can be used.)

“This is part of the choice that we are making,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education. “If we had our druthers we might like to augment this [the permanent fund] for the future. … We have not done that, for various reasons.” Bacon’s “various reasons” primarily are the state’s recent tight revenues, which have led lawmakers to tap whatever money they could to reduce the size of school budget cuts.

Latest new bills

Three bills of possible interest were introduced Thursday. Two, Senate bills 12-082 and 12-084, relate to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The first one proposes to raise retirement ages for future PERA employees to match those of the Social Security system. PERA members generally can retire much earlier now, based on years of service, age and other factors. Both measures are sponsored by conservative Republicans and likely have no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Senate Bill 12-079 is a technical measure involving the Safe2tell school safety 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.


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.”