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.”

IPS referendum

Ferebee, pleading for more money for schools, says teacher raises, security upgrades are on the ballot

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, thinks the schools need more funding to serve students from low-income families.

At a quiet meeting held Wednesday in a near northside church, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee made his case: Indianapolis Public Schools needs more money from local taxpayers.

At stake when voters go to the polls in November: The ability of the state’s largest district to foot the cost of raises for teachers and school security improvements, among other expenditures officials deem necessary. There are two property tax hikes on the ballot this year to increase school funding.

Ferebee told the few dozen people who came to the meeting — parents, alumni, district staffers, among them — that, with adequate funding, he envisioned offering the best teacher pay in the state and attracting some of the most talented educators.

“I think every parent in this room would appreciate that,” he said. “We have to be competitive with teachers’ … compensation.”

The superintendent presented a broad outline of the district’s financial woes, but there was not much new information. He devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from those in attendance, who were alternately supportive and skeptical of the referendums.

Reggie Jones, a member of the Indianapolis NAACP education committee, said that while he supports the ballot initiatives, he also wants to know more about how the money will be spent.

Janise Hamiter, a district bus attendant, expressed concern that some of the money raised will be used to make improvements at buildings that are occupied by charter schools in the district innovation network.

“Private money is going to be used for charter schools. Public money is going to be used for charter schools,” she said. “They are getting both ends of the stick if you ask me.”

She said she hasn’t yet decided which way she’ll vote.

One of the proposed referendums would raise about $52 million to pay for improvements to school buildings, particularly safety features such as new lights, classroom locks, and fire sprinklers. The board voted earlier this month to add that request to the ballot.

The second measure, which is likely to generate significantly more funds, would pay for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Details of that proposal are expected in the coming weeks. The board will hold a July 17 hearing on the measure.

The community meeting was notable because this is the district’s second time this year campaigning for more money from taxpayers, and the success of the referendums could hinge on whether Ferebee makes a strong case to voters. Last year, the district announced plans to seek nearly $1 billion in two referendums that were to be on the ballot in May. But community groups, notably the MIBOR Realtor Association, balked at the size of the request and criticized the district for not providing enough details.

Eventually, the school board chose to delay the vote and work with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly version. The latest proposal for building improvements comes in at about one-quarter of the district’s initial request.

Nathan Harris, who graduated from Arsenal Technical High School but no longer lives in the district, said he supports increasing school funding because he’s familiar with the needs of Indianapolis schools. When so many students come from low-income families, Harris said, “more resources are required.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”