Program canceled

AmeriCorps ‘volunteers’ in Denver schools were district employees, investigation finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012.

The AmeriCorps program in Denver Public Schools has been terminated after an investigation found the district broke rules by recruiting its own employees to serve as volunteers, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Colorado agency that oversees some AmeriCorps programs here, Serve Colorado, is requiring the district pay back $200,000 in federal money it received to administer the program in the 2017-18 school year. The district department that got the grant is barred from reapplying.

In addition, Serve Colorado determined that the more than 400 AmeriCorps members working in Denver Public Schools this past year will not be eligible for a key AmeriCorps perk: up to $5,920 each, depending on hours of service, to pay for college courses or pay back student loans. District officials have said they will pick up that cost, which they estimate at between $1 million and $1.8 million.

The district is not disputing the report’s findings. In a statement, officials said that in light of them, Denver Public Schools “has taken steps to review and improve its procedures and processes related to grants administration,” including by consulting outside experts.

AmeriCorps is a federal service program that offers stipends and other incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to Americans to volunteer with nonprofits, public agencies, or other organizations on projects such as helping communities recover from national disasters or mentoring youth.

The report found Denver Public Schools violated federal regulations by recruiting its own paraprofessionals, who were already on its payroll, to join AmeriCorps on top of their regular jobs. Their duties didn’t change, but they did get access to the “education award” AmeriCorps offers to volunteers who successfully complete their service. District officials said the paraprofessionals would have been eligible for $2,907 in tuition reimbursement because they only work part-time.

“The standard practice in recruiting and placing AmeriCorps members for DPS is working from a roster of existing … paraprofessionals,” the report says. When Serve Colorado officials interviewed 16 of them as part of an investigation, “most did not seems to have a good grasp of how AmeriCorps service fits into their role,” the report says.

The district also recruited teaching residents and members of its Math and Literacy Fellows program to be AmeriCorps volunteers in violation of the rules, the report says. Teaching residents are students studying to become teachers. In addition to taking classes, they get practical experience teaching part-time in classrooms under the mentorship of veteran teachers. Math and Literacy Fellows are tutors who work with small groups of struggling students.

Paraprofessionals are teacher’s aides. Several told investigators they regularly performed duties outside the scope of their official roles. In addition to lunch and recess duty, some said they taught entire classes on their own when the teacher was out, the report says. That’s a violation of AmeriCorps regulations that say volunteers cannot displace employees.

The report also notes that policies and procedures for training AmeriCorps members to work in Denver Public Schools were “sparse,” and that it was unclear to investigators “who was responsible for what with respect to oversight of AmeriCorps members.”

Denver Public Schools had 475 AmeriCorps members in 2017-18, according to the district.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the $1 million to $1.8 million to pay for the “education awards” those members would have received through AmeriCorps will come out of the district’s general fund. The financial impact on the district’s billion-dollar budget is expected to be spread out over seven years, which is how long AmeriCorps members have after their service to request reimbursement for their educational costs, Ferrandino said.

“This is going to some of our lowest-wage workers,” Ferrandino said of the paraprofessionals who were AmeriCorps members. “It is something we think is the right thing to do.”

The investigation was prompted by a complaint, the report says. To look into it, Serve Colorado officials visited 10 Denver schools where the district employees who were also AmeriCorps members worked. In addition to the 16 AmeriCorps members who were interviewed, investigators spoke with 14 supervisors and reviewed job descriptions and timesheets.

Serve Colorado is an agency housed within the office of Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that one department and not the entire district has been barred from reapplying for an AmeriCorps grant. It has also been updated to reflect that as part-time employees and AmeriCorps members, Denver paraprofessionals would not have qualified for the full amount of the education award.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.