State Board changes

Republican candidates lining up for State Board vacancy

The Colorado Department of Education.

At least half a dozen people are interested in the State Board of Education seat being vacated by Republican Marcia Neal of Grand Junction.

The potential applicants include a former candidate for the 3rd District seat, an anti-Common Core activist from Pueblo, three people with local school board experience and a parochial school principal from Grand Junction.

Neal announced two weeks ago that she’s resigning effective July 31. Her decision was sparked by board dysfunction and personal health issues, she said. (See this story for details on her decision, and this article about reaction.)

Under state law the seat will be filled by a Republican Party vacancy committee. The chosen applicant will have to run for election in November 2016.

Freida Wallison of Snowmass, Pitkin County Republican Party chair, said earlier this week, “We are in the process of setting up the vacancy committee.” She’s set a June 30 deadlines for applications, which consist of biographies and photos.

Applicants have to be registered Republicans who live in the 29-county district, which covers all of the Western Slope from Glenwood Springs west but also includes the San Luis Valley and Pueblo County. No other qualifications are required.

“The inquiries we are receiving are by and large from people who have a connection to education,” Wallison said.

The 13-member vacancy committee will include members of various other GOP committees, representatives from Mesa and Pueblo counties and five other members, each representing a group of smaller counties.

Wallison hopes to convene the committee in July for a single meeting to interview candidates and vote. State law requires the winning applicant to be selected by a majority of committee members present and voting.

Chalkbeat Colorado talked with people across the 3rd District, including potential candidates, to develop this list.

Jake Aubert
Jake Aubert

Jake Aubert – As principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Grand Junction, Aubert said, “I think I bring a unique perspective.”

He said earlier this week, “I am interested and working toward applying for that position.”

Aubert said he’s concerned about the amount of standardized testing in public schools and hears that concern from many other educators. “What PARCC testing and the Common Core mandate is extremely frustrating” for teacher, adding, “Parents are extremely frustrated with the amount of class time their students are missing.”

He added, “The centralization of education is very concerning. A one-size-fits-all model simply doesn’t work.”

Roger Good
Roger Good

Roger Good – A Steamboat Springs business owner, Good was elected to the Steamboat Springs school board in 2013 and serves as president.

He confirmed Wednesday that he’s applied for the appointment, saying he has “a passion for education and an appreciation for education.”

Good said he would bring “a very open mind” to contentious issues like testing. The two most valuable things about testing, Good said, are that results provide data for comparing schools and districts and that results be timely.

He also said protecting local control of schools is very important for him. “Local control is under attack.”

Michael Lobato
Michael Lobato

Michael Lobato – A rancher, Lobato is president of the Center school board in the San Luis Valley and is serving his last term.

Lobato, who has background both on the Colorado Association of School Boards and in Republican politics, said, “I’ve sure had a lot of pressure put on me. Am I interested? Yeah. Have I made a firm commitment? No.”

He said he’s weighing personal considerations before deciding whether to seek the post and indicated he also wants a better sense of who will be on the vacancy committee and of the other candidates.

Lobato believes his experience in Center, where the district has improved academic performance and built a new school in recent years, means, “I think I can bring a lot to the table.” He also feels it would be valuable to have a small-district rural voice on the State Board.

Debbie Rose
Debbie Rose

Debbie Rose – A former member and president of the Pueblo 70 school board, Rose has been active on other local and state charitable and government boards.

She’s currently board vice president of the San Isabel Electric Association and ran unsuccessfully for Pueblo County commissioner in 2008 and 2012.

Rose believes she could be helpful on the State Board, “having had personal experience with turmoil on boards.”

“I strongly believe in local control. The community knows best,” she said, adding that she’s concerned about over-testing and about a lack of vocational training in schools.

Reflecting on education in general, Rose said, “I think we need to be rethinking the direction we’re going.”

Rose is a businesswoman in Beulah, west of Pueblo.

Barbara Ann Smith
Barbara Ann Smith

Barbara Ann Smith – Having lost to Neal by only 1,783 votes in a 2014 primary, Smith is trying again for the seat. “You bet I’m going to run. I’ve applied for it,” she said.

In a letter she distributed this week, the retired teacher highlighted her opposition to the Common Core, PARCC tests and improper uses of student data. She also says she’s a strong supporter of local school control.

Smith has been active in Republican politics and civic groups in the Grand Junction area.

Neal last year said she wouldn’t run for reelection, but she changed her mind after Smith entered the race. Neal was victorious in the Republican primary, with 26,138 votes, compared to 24,355 for Smith. Neal went on to win the general election by nearly 33,000 votes over Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo.

Anita Stapleton
Anita Stapleton

Anita Stapleton – A fixture at State Board meetings and many legislative hearings, Stapleton has become one of the better-known grassroots critics of the Common Core and PARCC testing.

A nurse from Pueblo, Stapleton speaks frequently to civic and political groups about her criticisms of a wide variety of education reforms. She also was active among the parents and activists who monitored testing and data privacy legislation during the 2015 session.

Stapleton said, “I do have other issues than Common Core.” She said schools need to better support both parents and teachers and “rebuild” relationships with parents. “How we’re going about it now is not the answer.”

Learn more about the State Board’s tumultuous spring in this archive of Chalkbeat stories.

If you’ve heard of other people interested in the State Board vacancy, write to Todd Engdahl.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.