BEST board makes “brutal” choices

Six rural districts with crumbling schools have jumped the first hurdle toward getting new buildings with the help of funding from the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Meeting photo
Applicants make their pitch to the BEST board while an image of their school is projected on the screen.

Ten districts and schools weren’t so lucky. They didn’t make the cut for major grants from a program that has limited funds and also is nearing the limit of what it can spend every year.

After the Capital Construction Assistance Board took its final vote Tuesday afternoon, chair Dave Van Sant said, “That was brutal.”

He was reflecting on the dilemma the board has faced every year since the BEST program was created in 2008 – too many worthy projects and not enough funding.

Now the program is facing new limits on what it can do for the state’s schools. The BEST law limits the program to $40 million a year in payments on the lease-purchase agreements that are used to pay for larger projects such as new schools. (Districts also contribute funds from bond issues to make those payments.)

Payments on the 2013-14 projects will put the program at the $40 million, which means that in coming years the construction board will be making primarily cash grants and likely doing fewer large projects.

Here are the projects that survived this year’s selection process, in the priority order set by the board. (Dollar amounts are total project cost, which include various combinations of state and local funds.)

  • Creede – $16.1 million for a new PK-12 school to replace a log school in this isolated, 78-student district in the San Juan Mountains.
  • Kim – $10.6 million for a major renovation and addition to the PK-12 school in this 51-student district in the state’s far southeastern corner.
  • Limon – $25 million for a new PK-12 school to serve this 447-student district along Interstate 70 on the central plains.
  • Moffat – $16.7 million to build a new PK-12 school in this San Luis Valley district that serves 210 students.
  • Haxtun – $6.6 million to renovate and add to a K-12 school for this 331-student district in the northeastern corner of the state.
  • South Conejos – $19.5 million to replace a PK-12 school in this San Luis Valley district of 208 students.

Total cost of the projects is $94.6 million, including $64.1 million in state funds and $30.5 million in local matches.

BEST snapshot
  • $979 million in grants funded through 2012-13
  • 181 grants affecting 284 facilities
  • 66 percent of money has been for new schools
  • 37 percent of grants to rural districts
  • State has estimated $18 billion in unmet needs

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Two other projects, a $34.6 million middle school in Fort Morgan and a $12.9 million project to build a new school for the Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale, were named as alternates. Alternates can become eligible for funding if a finalist fails to raise its matching funds, as has happened in the past when voters defeated bond issues. The six finalists all will need to pass bond issues in November.

The board faced a dilemma because South Conejos and Fort Morgan were tied in the final rankings. The board took a separate vote, which came out 6-1 for South Conejos. (Two members recused themselves because of connections to the two districts.)

Applicants that didn’t make the cut included the Edison district east of Colorado Springs, the Animas High School charter in Durango, Independence Academy charter in Grand Junction, Montrose, Widefield and Aurora. Large applications from two charters, the New America School in Adams County and AZL Academy in Aurora, were eliminated on Tuesday.

Cost of the original list facing the board was about $230 million.

The board also approved a separate list of 24 smaller cash-funded projects, including roof repairs, new boilers, safety upgrades and other repairs. Those projects total $15,7 million, $9 million from the state and $6.6 million from local matches. (See the full list of recommended grants here.)

The two lists now go to the State Board of Education, which will vote on them at its June meeting. After that the legislative Capital Development Committee will review the large-projects list. The construction board will meet in November to fine-tune the list if any of the finalists fail to pass bond issues.

The BEST selection process is unique in that the construction board has a certain amount of discretion in making its recommendations and because it makes its decisions request-by-request in an open meeting where applicants are allowed to make brief in-person pitches to the board, in addition to the voluminous applications they filed months ago.

BEST applications are evaluated on a complicated set of criteria including building conditions and suitability for educational uses, cost and local financial ability to provide matches, among other factors.

The board uses a complicated process to cull the applicants. Projects require a majority roll-call vote to advance to a short list, but projects die if they don’t gain a majority, don’t get a second or fail to spark a motion at all.

Members then individually rank projects for the two short lists. Those rankings are combined to create priority lists for cash grants and for larger projects. The cutoff points for the two lists are determined by how much money the board has to spend.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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