Who Is In Charge

Turnaround election for school districts

Election 2012 LogoTuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado school districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

The 38 proposals on this year’s ballots totaled about $1.03 billion; the total approved was about $1.01 billion.

Only two small districts, Cheyenne Re-5 on the eastern plains and West End near the Utah border, were shut out. In West End, 75 percent of voters were in the no column. Meanwhile, voters in the Gilcrest district of Weld County rejected a bond issue but approved an operating increase.

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By the numbers

  • 31 districts proposed ballot measures, including Aspen
  • 38 measures total were proposed – some districts sought both bond issues and operating tax increases

Ballot breakdown

  • 7 measures were traditional bonds – 6 passed
  • 14 measures were local matches for state construction dollars or BEST bonds – 13 passed
  • 16 measures were operating increases – 15 passed
  • 1 sales tax, in Aspen – 1 passed
  • Total measures passed – 35

Rejected measures

  • 1 regular bond was rejected – in Gilcrest, which passed an operating increase
  • 1 local match for a state construction grant, also known as a BEST bond, was rejected
  • 1 operating increase was rejected – in Cheyenne Re-5
  • Voters in only 2 of 31 districts rejected all measures before them

Final tally

  • Dollar value of all proposals – $1.03 billion
  • Dollar value of all proposals approved – $1.009 billion
  • Bonds approved – $766.8 million, including BEST bonds approved – $90.5 million
  • Operating measures approved – $150.7 million
  • Sales taxes approved – $1.75 million

Of the 35 total proposals that passed, 15 were approved with yes votes of 60 percent or more. The biggest margin was in Telluride, where 86 percent of voters supported an operating increase. Proposals in two districts, Bayfield and Plateau Valley, squeaked by with 51 percent yes to 49 percent no.

The results represented a dramatic turnaround from the 2011 election, one of the worst in recent memory for schools. Voters approved only $73 million of the more than $560 million in bonds and operating increases proposed in 2011.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said she feels the slowly improving economy was “a pretty big reason” for what happened on Tuesday. “Last year, we were closer to the crash,” she said. “People have had a year to look at some recovery.”

Urschel also speculated that voters “maybe paid attention to the cuts their districts had to impose” in recent years and were supportive of the need to restore some funding. Most districts are planning to use operating increases to restore budget cuts or avoid future ones.

She said most districts were very careful this year to get community input on the proposals, noting, “They were guided by their communities from the outset.” Urschel also said voters in districts that sought bonds to match state construction funds may have been attracted by the prospect of leveraging their local tax dollars.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, praised the re-election of President Obama and also said, “The president’s priorities were echoed across Colorado in dozens of local elections in which voters soundly rejected calls to accept low levels of education funding, and instead made the choice to restore investment to an outstanding, yet financially-drained public school system.”

The bulk of the $1.01 billion is accounted for by the total $664 million requested by Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s two largest school districts. Both districts requested bond issues and operating revenue increases.

Cherry Creek district voters also approved a bond issue and an operating increase.

“We are very grateful that the community recognized the need to provide resources to continue our mission of excellence for all students,” board President Jennifer Churchfield said. “As we have in the past, we will keep our promise to provide the best educational opportunities for the children in this district.”

(See this story for election night reaction to the DPS vote, and this one for comments on the votes in Jefferson County and other larger districts.)

Who passed what

Support for district tax measures spanned the state and was seen in districts both large and small.

Districts that passed both bond issues and operating increases

  • Bayfield – $11.9 million bond, $1.2 million operating
  • Buena Vista – $4.4 million to match state construction funds, $900,000 operating
  • Cherry Creek – $125 million bond, $25 million operating
  • Denver – $466 million bond, $49 million operating
  • Fort Lupton – $11.7 million bond ($5.1 million to match a state grant), $1.4 million operating
  • Jefferson – $99 million bond, $39 million operating

Voters in Gilcrest narrowly defeated a $9.9 million bond but approved a $1.8 million operating increase.

Other bond issues that passed

  • Alamosa – $4.9 million
  • Pueblo 70 – $59.9 million

Other operating increases that passed

  • Aurora – $15 million
  • Briggsdale – $195,000
  • Del Norte – $832,600
  • Mancos – $276,000
  • Plateau Valley – $350,000
  • Stratton – $119,200
  • Telluride – $800,000
  • St. Vrain – $14.8 million

The Cheyenne County District Re-5 lost a proposed $200,000 operating increase with more than 60 percent voting no.

Others passing bond issues to match state grants

The state’s competitive Building Excellent Schools Today program provides grants to districts for school construction and renovation, but in most cases local matches are required. These districts raised their matches.

  • Dolores – $3.5 million
  • Elbert 200 – $2.9 million
  • Genoa-Hugo – $6.6 million
  • Greeley – $8.2 million
  • Hi Plains – $2.8 million
  • Lake County – $11.4 million
  • Montezuma-Cortez – $21 million
  • Otis – $2.8 million
  • Platte Valley – $5.7 million
  • Salida – $9.6 million bond
  • Sheridan – $6.5 million

Greeley and Salida were chosen as alternate BEST winners in case any finalists lost their bond elections and forfeited their state grants. Denver actually is an alternate as well – a small part of its bond issue is a match for a state grant to renovate South High School.

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board is scheduled to meet Monday to decide how to handle the alternates, given that West End has forfeited its $12.5 million state grant by failing to pass its $9.4 million match.

And one successful sales tax increase

Aspen voters approved a city sales tax increase that will generate about $1.75 million a year to the Aspen school district.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: