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.

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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.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: