Who Is In Charge

BEST hopefuls cross their fingers

Over the next three days, Colorado school districts will compete for the only significant source of state construction dollars in hopes of getting money for projects that range from building schools to replacing roofs and 50-year-old boilers.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy of the state Capital Construction Assistance Division.

Their fate is in the hands of the state Capital Construction Assistance Board, which meets Wednesday through Friday to decide on 2012-13 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

A total of $439.8 million in projects is being sought by 48 districts, 12 charter schools, one board of cooperative educational services and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. The requests seek $297.7 million in state funding and promise $142.1 million in local matching funds.

The competitive five-year-old BEST program is the only significant source of state construction and renovation funds for schools. As such, the grant process is closely watched not only by applicants but also by other districts and charters who hope to apply in the future.

The BEST board hasn’t yet decided how much state money it will commit this time. It could be as low as about $130 million. Because the grant requests include nearly $300 million in state funds, some districts will go away empty-handed, just as other applicants have in the past four grant cycles.

Larger projects are financed through a lease-purchase system known as certificates of participation, on which annual payments are made from state funds and local matches.

This year’s three-day board meeting is significant because the board is approaching the end of an era of big grants. State law sets an annual $40 million limit on payments for BEST projects, and the annual payout now is near $30 million.

This week’s deliberations also are of interest because the board is changing its procedures in an effort to minimize confusion about how it decides on projects.

The applicants

This year’s applications range from the $42 million high school replacement project sought by the Montezuma-Cortez schools – half from the state, half from a local match – to a $27,500 request from the Sterling schools for fire alarm upgrades. In addition to the lease-purchase projects, the BEST board also makes direct cash grants for smaller needs.

There are 17 applications of more than $10 million each. Many of them fit what’s often considered the traditional profile of a BEST applicant – a small rural district with an aging building and insufficient local resources to replace it. In addition to Montezuma-Cortez, here are the applications with individual project costs of more than $20 million:

    • Lake County or Leadville – $31 million for three projects, including high school renovation and addition
    • Greeley – $29.2 million to replace a middle school
    • Sheridan – $29.5 million to replace an early childhood center and renovate a middle school
    • West End, including Naturita and Nucla – $21.9 million to replace a PK-12 school
    • Limon – $20.8 million for a PK-12 renovation
    • Elbert 200 – $20.6 million for a new PK-12 school
    • Otis in Washington County – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement
    • South Conejos, including Antonito – $20.6 million for a PK-12 school replacement

An additional eight applicants have requested projects with price tags of between $10 million and $20 million each. Those include Fort Lupton, Genoa-Hugo, Hi Plains in Kit Carson County, Kim, Pikes Peak BOCES, Platte Valley including Kersey, Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale and Salida.

As often happens, several of the applicants are districts and schools whose bids failed in previous years. Of the 17 applicants seeking $10 million or more, seven are repeat requests, including the two largest, Montezuma-Cortez and Lake County.

Applicants also include some of the state’s largest districts, such as Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Denver.

The process

BEST awards are made using a complicated set of building condition and financial factors that give the construction board a fair amount of discretion. And because the total of the applications exceeds the money available every year, some projects that look deserving on paper are left out while similar applications win.

Follow the decisions
  • The BEST board will meet starting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the Aspen Board Room of the Adams 12-Five Star district conference center, 1500 E. 128th Ave. in Thornton.
  • Get agenda details and ground rules here.
  • EdNews will be covering the meetings and will provide updates on Twitter and Facebook plus daily wrapups.

In past years, applications were listed by Division of Capital Construction Staff in order of their ratings on various structural and educational suitability factors. But the board, applying additional factors such as matching amounts, picked winners out of the original lists’ order. In some years, the board stopped going through the list after it had spent the available money.

That caused confusion and some resentment from districts that felt that their applications didn’t get full hearings.

This year, the board will be briefed on projects in alphabetical order and applicants will be allowed to address the board. After each presentation, the board will decide whether to put a project on one of two short lists, the first for projects under $1 million and the other for those costing more than $1 million. All applications will be reviewed.

After that process is finished, board members will individually rank the projects on the two short lists, and division staff will compile those rankings to create prioritized lists. The board “will then review each of the shortlists and determine how many of the projects can be funded with the available amount of money,” in the words of a division document.

Also new this year is a formula for calculating the matching funds required of charter schools, a change that’s expected to make some charter bids more competitive.

Future of BEST

Created by the 2008 legislature, BEST was a feel-good program that won wide Statehouse support because it seemed to address a problem – deteriorating rural schools – without increasing taxes or taking money from other programs. BEST is funded by a share of revenues from state school trust lands and a smaller amount of Colorado Lottery revenues.

But term limits make legislative memories short, and lots of questions were raised about BEST during the 2012 session. Some lawmakers wonder if the money could be better used for other purposes. Others think the school lands revenues should flow into that program’s permanent fund, allowing it to grow and provide interest revenue for future education spending.

Despite the talk, no BEST legislation passed last spring. But some board members are worried about what might happen in 2013. During its May meeting, the board discussed the possibility of spending two years’ worth of money this year, avoiding legislative cuts next year. No decision was made, so the board will have to make that call this week.

The construction board’s recommendations are expected to include alternate projects in case some winners can’t raise their local matches through bond issues in November. Of the 17 applications with price tags of more than $10 million each, all but two will require bond issues to raise local matches. Last year two districts that were grant finalists lost their bond elections, allowing two alternates to win awards.

The construction board’s final list will have to be ratified by the State Board of Education, which usually acts at its August meeting.

Through last January, the program has provided $674 million for 237 projects at 147 schools.

The BEST program launched with a professional evaluation of all school buildings in the state. Based on that, division officials say there’s an $18 billion backlog of construction and renovation needs and that those grow at the rate of $1 billion a year.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.