Who Is In Charge

Fact checking DPS bond measure 3B

There is no lack of vitriol surrounding the $466 million school bond issue – known as 3B – that Denver voters will decide Nov. 6.

If approved, the bond will pay for the district to acquire, construct and improve its capital assets. Think school buildings, and some technology infrastructure. It’s the most money the district has ever asked of citizens through bond financing.

Learn more on the DPS webpage in the EdNews 2012 Election Center. You can also read the ballot language for yourself.

Sorting through the claims and counter-claims is challenging. Here are snapshots of six common concerns about this ballot question floating this election season.

1. Money for charter schools

Charter school skeptics have complained that 40 percent or more of the bond money will go to charter schools, while only 16 percent of Denver students attend charter schools. There has been a lot of talk of traditional vs. non-traditional schools.

The problem is, everyone seems to be using different definitions. So it’s difficult to make comparisons.

According to DPS staff, 9.4 percent of the district bond – or $44 million – would be spent on renovations and additions to district-run charter schools housed in district facilities. Find a school-by-school breakdown here. An additional $1.4 million of technology funds would go to children who attend charter schools.

Altogether, this equates to $45.4 million of bond money going to students at charter schools, or 9.7 percent of the bond. This fall, 14.4 percent of district students attend charter schools, according to the district’s latest count.

Critics of 3B disagree. DPS board member Arturo Jimenez, for example, wrote in a Denver Post op-ed column that approximately $187 million will go to charters. He broke that figure down this way – $50 million-plus directly to charters, $2 million to closed facilities that will include charters, $26 million to facilities that co-locate charters and $122 million going to “new schools which have undefined programs that will most likely be handed over to charters based on the increasing trend to fund charters rather than traditional schools.”

District spokesman Mike Vaughn said no decisions have been made about the new schools that are part of the bond proposal. He also said that if the bond is approved, no decisions will be made about programs at the new schools until there is an extensive community-input process.

Mike Kiley, a DPS parent, wrote in his EdNews opinion Why I’m against Denver’s school bond that “53 percent of bond funds will go to non-traditional schools, but only 21 percent of DPS students attended non-traditional – or magnet, charter or alternative – schools in 2012.”

In Kiley’s analysis, he separates schools by traditional vs non-traditional, including innovation and alternative schools, for example, with charters in the non-traditional category.

Who’s right, then, depends on how you would classify schools and whether you believe the district will follow through on considering community input in deciding new schools.

In the school board resolution approving the bond question, passed 5-2 with board members Jimenez and Andrea Merida dissenting, a set of “guiding principles” for selecting new schools is included. It calls for input from “parents in the impacted community, potential boundary and/or priority area of the facility’ and says that “for each facility, the District will propose at least one district-run school as one alternative for community consideration.” (p.11 of the resolution)

2. Why a new Stapleton high school?

Leaders of No on 3B, the organized opposition to the bond measure, cite equity as a top concern and say plans for a new Stapleton high school exemplify the issue.

According to the district’s school-by-school bond project list, $38.5 million would go to build a new high school in the well-heeled area of Stapleton.

No on 3B says older schools serving more low-income kids are in disrepair or overcrowded. The group also says there is adequate space in other nearby high schools, including 900 seats at Manual and 600 seats at George Washington, to serve students in the growing Stapleton area.

District officials respond that Manual plans to add middle school grades, which would eat up seats there. Meanwhile, Manual has been discussed as a possible colocation site.

The number of high school-aged young people is expected to grow in the vicinity of George Washington, according to district projections. So district staff project there will indeed be seats available at those two schools in 2015-2016 but not enough to accommodate the new Northfield/Stapleton teen set.

By the district’s count, there will be 1,100 high school-aged students in Stapleton in three years but only 531 available seats at existing schools.

Projections are certainly subject to change and the district might be able, by shifting some boundaries or programs, to make do with existing facilities for awhile longer. So the question for voters may come down to whether you believe Stapleton deserves its own high school – and how soon.

3. Wait another year to seek bond issue

The timing of the bond question is another source of debate, with some arguing the district needs to wait a year and come back with a better bond question. Others say the chances of passing a tax increase are better during a presidential-election year, when voter turnout is higher.

However, a review of Colorado school bond elections since 1996 found mixed evidence of this presidential-year phenomenon. It’s unclear whether it outweighs concerns about the economy.

In 2008, for instance, only 52 percent of Colorado school district bond questions passed, compared to the average over the past 16 years of 67 percent. Last year, only one bond question passed out of seven on Colorado ballots. But these lower passing rates in 2008 and 2011 likely have to do with the the economic downturn.

In general, the percent of school district bonds since 1996 that passed during presidential-election years – excluding 2008 – was 82 percent. The rate of passage in non-presidential election years is 66 percent.

In 2004, 87 percent of school bond questions passed. In 2000, 80 percent passed and, in 1996, 78 percent passed.

So the bigger issue to contend with may be the economy and whether it continues its slow recovery. Would voters be more willing to approve a bond issue a year from now?

4. Giving the district a blank check

Opponents of 3B say approving the $466 million bond is tantamount to giving the district a blank check. While it is true that fine print reads, “Please note that all allocations for 2012 funding are preliminary and may be subject to change,” it is also true that school districts commonly include such boilerplate language.

A school district making more specific promises could find itself in a major bind should student numbers grow or shrink, construction costs dramatically change, an environmental issue is discovered or pressing new facilities’ needs surface.

That said, voting for any school bond is, to some degree, an act of faith in the district. In this case, Denver Public Schools says, “Projects shown for each school have been listed on this website, and DPS is committed to delivering them, should the mill levy and bond pass.” The mill levy measure, or ballot question 3A, seeks a $49 million operating-tax increase.

The district acknowledges that the actual amounts in certain “project buckets” for each school could change due to a number of factors, including:

  • Changing enrollment: Per-pupil allocations for the mill levy and some bond technology projects are based on 2012 projected enrollment, and will be updated for each school based on 2013 projected enrollment.
  • Project costs: The costs of certain projects are estimates, which will be validated when the individual projects are fully planned.
  • Not all needs known: Several bond projects are not yet allocated to specific schools, such as replacement of security cameras, and will be allocated to schools as determinations are made based on the need.

So should you track the dollars and how they’re spent if the bond is approved? Yes, because specific numbers and plans have not yet been outlined and things could change.

If 3B passes, a citizens’ oversight committee will track the district’s spending of the bond dollars while a separate committee will track the spending of operating dollars if 3A passes.

The bond oversight committee will review projects and expenses, and advise on project changes, according to the board resolution creating it (pages 10-11). Assurance of the bond accountability committee was one reason board member Jeannie Kaplan – after much deliberation – decided to back the bond.

According to the resolution, each committee will contain up to 15 members, including one board member. Seven members of each committee will be selected by the school board while the remaining members will be named by the superintendent, a source of concern for some.

One thing to keep in mind – even if the district punted the bond question to another year, the same fuzzy boilerplate language likely would apply.

5. Lack of community input

Another key concern of No on 3B is a lack of community input and the group specifically complains no teachers or school principals were included on the 74-member Community Planning Advisory Committee that drafted the bond proposal.

That’s true. District staff says that the CPAC didn’t include teachers or principals because those groups participated in the internal planning effort that went on for months before the CPAC phase of the project. They say the goal of CPAC was to seek external input. It is also important to note that the Denver Classroom Teachers Association is backing the bond.

Another complaint has focused on a lack of parents on the CPAC, when the district released a list of members with just nine identified as parents. But district staff say at least 20 members are parents and possibly more since some members only identified themselves by a role other than parent.

For example, Suzanne Leff and Glenna Norvelle are listed on the CPAC membership list by their job titles only though both are current or past DPS parents.

Still, if 20 of the 74 members are parents, that’s only 27 percent of the committee.

6. Adding to the district’s debt load

Question 3B asks whether DPS’ debt should be increased by $466 million, with a maximum repayment cost of $738 million. Those are some big numbers. It’s also a big district serving more than 80,000 students.

Learn more

Some critics of 3B have lumped the district’s pension debt with debt that would be accrued by the district should the bond pass. But school officials say the 2012 bond is a separate matter and would be guaranteed – by taxpayers.

“Under state law, voters must approve the full amount of repayment before you can even issue the bonds,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

You may hear the claim that the debt load per students has already reached $25,000 per student – even without passage of this measure. School officials say the number is not correct but they were unable to provide a more accurate figure. And it is unclear how the $25,000 figure, which lives on an anonymous website, was calculated.

However, rating agencies – Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s – evaluate debt load when dishing out credit ratings. Moody’s has rated DPS Aa2, its third-highest rating, and it’s given an Aa3 rating for the pension certificates of participation that were issued as part of the 2008 pension financing. Those ratings mean that DPS’ debt obligations “are judged to be of high quality and are subject to very low credit risk.” Still, Aa3 is riskier than Aa2, according to Moody’s.

Standard & Poor’s has given DPS an AA rating, its fourth-highest rating, which also means the district has “very strong” capacity to meet financial obligations. And Standard & Poor’s has given DPS an A+ rating for the district’s pension financing, which means the district has strong capacity to meet its financial commitments but is “somewhat more susceptible to the adverse effects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions than obligors in higher-rated categories.”

Read the full reports on DPS by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. But keep in mind, the ratings agencies weren’t exactly on target in the Great Recession.

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.