Hope for BEST

New schools could rise again through grant program if bill defies odds to become law

School under construction

Colorado’s school construction grant program has been a lifeline for districts with aging and inadequate buildings, particularly for small rural districts unable to build new schools themselves with local tax money.

But the impact of the seven-year-old Building Excellent Schools Today program has been blunted in recent years because of a cap on how much BEST can spend every year on repaying the lease-purchase agreements used to build new schools.

Program supporters have pushing to loosen that cap, and they took the first step this week when a Senate committee approved a bill to raise the limit.

That proposal, Senate Bill 16-072, has a long ways to go, but BEST supporters are encouraged. The cap issue hasn’t gone beyond informal discussions during previous sessions.

“I was pleasantly surprised that it came out of Senate Education unanimously,” said prime sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Created in 2008, BEST receives most of its funding from revenues generated by state-owned lands. That money comes from oil, gas and grazing leases and rents. The program uses that money, combined with matching funds from districts, to pay for school construction and renovation, ranging from brand-new buildings to replacement roofs, security systems and other small projects.

The program has provided more than $1.25 billion in state and local funds for projects since it started, covering more than 350 school facilities in more than 120 districts.

“For many Colorado school districts BEST is our only lifeline,” Mapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio told the Senate Education Committee this week. Her district went through multiple applications and bond issue efforts before finally landing a grant in 2010.

A key BEST goal is to help resource-strapped districts to pay for building needs.

“We do not have the ability to raise what we need to either repair or replace,” Superintendent Kevin Schott told the committee. His Deer Trail district in eastern Arapahoe County is preparing a BEST application. “The new gym is 52 years old,” Schott noted.

Spending cap has cut down on large projects

The program’s main tool for funding larger projects is a lease-purchase device that involves investors providing upfront money for construction, then getting repaid over several years.

Annual debt repayments from state funds are limited to $40 million. The bill would phase in an increase in the overall cap to $60 million by 2019-20. The overall cap would be $120 million, including local funds also used to repay debt.

After approving more and more lease-purchase projects over several years BEST reached the state cap a couple of years ago. Since then it has issued mostly cash grants for smaller projects.

For example, in 2012-13, the BEST board approved projects worth $302 million, including nine lease-purchase deals totaling $217 million.

But for 2015-16, the board approved only cash grants worth about $90 million in state and local funds. That was enough to pay for relatively large projects in the De Beque, Edison and Roaring Fork districts, but several other big applications were rejected. The board makes grants once a year, subject to approval by the State Board of Education and the legislature’s Capital Development Committee.

“What the cap has effectively done is limit our ability to address large-scale projects,” said Scott Newell, director of the Division of Capital Construction.

Kathleen Gebhardt, a BEST board member, said districts also have quit applying for bigger projects. She notes that SB 16-072 would have a modest impact.

“It’s still a fairly small drop in a fairly big bucket” and will provide enough flexibility for “maybe one or two new schools a year,” Gebhardt said.

A 2010 study estimated statewide school facilities needs would rise to about $18 billion by 2018. The division will start updating that assessment this summer.

Amended bill provides no new BEST revenue

Kerr’s original draft of the bill also proposed an increase in BEST revenue. The program currently receives half the revenues generated by state lands or $40 million, whichever is greater. The bill proposed raising that $40 million to $60 million.

At Kerr’s request the committee on Thursday deleted that part of the bill.

Why? State income from oil and gas is dropping, so a $60 million BEST contribution might be unaffordable.

“We’ve had a great run over the last few years with the Colorado oil and gas boom, but we see a decline coming,” State Land Board director Bill Ryan told the committee.

Last year’s land board revenues of $185 million are expected to drop by more than $100 million this year.

With that portion of the bill removed, some committee members wondered if BEST will have enough income to support a higher cap.

“By taking out the increased revenue source, we’re saying BEST has permission to spend more, but we’re not giving it a new revenue source,” noted Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs Senate Education.

Kerr responded that the BEST board should have enough money with its current land revenues, plus $40 million a year from wholesale taxes on recreational marijuana and lottery funds.

Gebhardt told Chalkbeat that the board expects to be conservative in the grants it recommends next May, perhaps spending only $40 million to $50 million in cash grants.

Those issues are expected to be discussed further at the bill’s next stop, the Senate Finance Committee.

One other BEST proposal is before the legislature this session. Senate Bill 16-035 would create a new investment advisory board assigned to increase returns from the state’s $875 million Public School Fund. Any increased revenues would go to BEST, according to the sponsor, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.

Kerr said he’s talked to Johnston about the bill and “there’s talk of kind of combining forces and having the two of them move through together.”

school finance

Memphis charters could soon qualify for free rent in district-owned buildings

PHOTO: Courtesy of Vision Prep
Building maintenance is a challenge for charter schools in Memphis that pay rent to Shelby County Schools, including Vision Preparatory Charter School pictured here in spring 2017.

In a sea change, some Memphis charters could soon use district buildings without paying rent, though which would qualify is yet to be determined.

The proposal is the latest from the committee of charter and district leaders tasked with working through thorny issues between the sectors, which often have a tense relationship because they are competing for students. Shelby County Schools board members will discuss the recommendation at its meeting tomorrow evening and vote next Tuesday.

The group is also recommending that Shelby County Schools sell its unused buildings to charter schools if the buildings are in good enough condition. Of the 10 vacant district-owned buildings, four would qualify.

The proposed policy would go a long way in clarifying charter school access to public facilities and speeding up Shelby County Schools’ shedding of excess buildings, an issue that has become more acutely felt as enrollment declines.

2016 map: Half of Memphis schools closed since 2012 stand empty

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools make up about a fourth of the district, the most in the state, but only five of the 51 schools use district space. The rest rent private space or, in a few cases, own their buildings.

One barrier to using district space: Until recently, district officials required charter schools to pay rent because not all schools agreed to pay an “authorizer fee” meant to defray the costs the district incurs in overseeing charters. But now that a new state law requires charter schools to pay 3 percent of their state and local dollars to their authorizers starting next year, the district is under less pressure to recoup costs.

The prospect of a change is exciting to Tom Benton, the founder of Vision Prep, one of the five schools currently operating in district space. The school has been spending $79,000 a year to rent its southwest Memphis building, while also footing the bill for maintenance, utilities, some insurance, and any capital improvements it wants to make.

Benton said there are better uses for taxpayer dollars.

“That money could have bought us a new roof,” Benton said from his office, which is one of several parts of the school that have flooded during recent rainfalls. He recently promoted a part-time building engineer to full-time to deal with the issue.

“This is a public school with public school children,” he said. “We feel like those dollars should follow the child.”

It’s unclear whether Vision Prep will get to operate rent-free. The proposal does not guarantee free rent, only make it available, and it does not specify which charter schools will qualify.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management, said the district could weigh where the school wants to locate, performance on state tests, and whether the school offers specific programs, such as STEM or Montessori. Those specifications would ultimately be up to the school board, Leon said.

With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.

How school districts handle space requests by charter schools says a lot about their relationship with the publicly funded, privately managed schools. In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a charter schools advocate, handed out excess space at no cost — a policy that his successor, the current mayor Bill de Blasio, campaigned on altering. (Legislation has stopped him from making major changes.)

Other urban districts with a large number of charters, including Chicago and Indianapolis, negotiate nominal rents — often just $1 — for charter schools. Those cities have robust charter sectors and, importantly, district leaders who accept that charter schools are going to serve a large number of local students.

Shelby County Schools officials have a more complicated relationship with the city’s growing charter sector. They are actively vying to prevent more students from leaving the district for charter schools. And they resent being required by law to allow the 29 Memphis schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which takes over low-performing schools and mostly turns them into charters, to operate in their buildings rent-free.

Tennessee has helped charter schools with space in other ways. It requires districts to post a list of vacant or underused properties that could be used by charter schools, although it lets districts ultimately decide what to do with the buildings.

The state has shown willingness to help charter schools with facility expenses. The same state law that ushered in the authorizer fee also launched a $6 million grant program to reimburse charter schools for capital projects, rent, or purchasing buildings — if the school has a high academic growth score. Benton said Vision Prep has applied to the grant program to offset the school’s costs.

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.