Who Is In Charge

$237 million in BEST projects make the cut

Nearly a dozen school renovation and construction projects totaling $237.7 million were recommended Wednesday by the state School Capital Construction Assistance Board.

The decisions came after two and a half days of difficult meetings during which the board wrestled with competing priorities, the unavoidable fact that most applications wouldn’t get funded and with some public confusion about how the board makes its decisions.

The State Board of Education has the final say on grants from the Build Excellent Schools Today program. The board is expected to consider the recommendations at its meeting on Aug. 11-12.

The construction board’s recommendations were the second major round of grants since passage of the BEST law in 2008. Grants awarded last year totaled about half of the latest package, although a substantial portion of last year’s package wasn’t used because some local matching funds fell through.

Voters in several school districts also will have an influence on which projects ultimately are funded. In most cases BEST grants require local matching money, and districts are expected to ask voters to approve bond issues this November to raise local matching funds.

If some of those bond issues fail, those projects will be out of the running. Anticipating that problem, the CCAB Wednesday designated one additional project as a “runner-up” that won’t be funded unless one or more of the others fall off the list.

Voters statewide also may have an influence on the BEST projects, which are funded by lease-purchase agreements called certificates of participation, or COPs in government lingo. Amendment 61 on the November ballot would ban use of COPs.

“All bets are off if Amendment 61 passes,” said Dave Van Sant, a retired superintendent who serves on the construction board.

Here are the projects recommended by the board, culled from the 47 that applied:

Center District 26 JT – $31.5 million for replacement of several buildings. State share is $26.7 million and the local match is $4.7 million. (Bond vote required this November.) District enrollment is about 600 students.

Elbert District 200 – $19.6 million for a PK-12 replacement school. State share $16.1 million; local match $3.5 million. (Bond vote required this November.) Enrollment is about 240 students.

Fremont District RE-2 – $13.1 million  for an elementary school renovation and addition. State share $8.3 million; local match is $4.7 million.

Holly District RE-3 – $28.5 million for a new PK-12 school. State share $25 million; local match $3.5 million. (Bond vote required this November.) Enrollment 290 students.

Lake George Charter School (Park County) – $7.4 million for a new P-6 school. $6.5 million state share; $970,000 local match in hand. Enrollment is about 85 students.

Mapleton Public Schools – $53.7 million for major construction and renovation of the district’s Skyline Campus. State share about $33 million; local match about $21 million, which will require a bond issue in November. Enrollment 5,800 students. (The Mapleton proposal has a difficult history and sparked intense board discussion; see below for details.)

Monte Vista Schools – $32.1 million for elementary school renovations and high school replacement. State share $27.6 million; $4.5 million match already raised. Enrollment 1,200 students.

North Routt Charter School – $3.9 million for an addition to its K-8 campus. $3,1 million state grant; about $696,000 local match. Enrollment is about 70 students. (The school, which uses a Mongolian yurt for one of its buildings, won a BEST award last year but couldn’t use it because the state ruled it didn’t have a properly funded match. That problem has been fixed.)

Peyton School District 23 JT – $5.6 million for a junior high addition to the high school. State share $3 million; local match $2.6 million.

Salida District R-32 – $30.4 million for a new high school. State share $12.5 million; local match $17.9 million, with a bond vote this fall. The district has about 1,100 students.

Vista Charter School (Montrose) – $6.1 replacement for a 6-8 alternative school. State share $4.6 million; local match of  $1.5 million is in hand. Enrollment 190 students.

The runner-up on the list is a $24.1 million P-12 building to replace three schools in the 380-student Akron R-1 School District. The rub for the district is that it will have to try to sell voters on a bond issue to raise the $7.7 million local match without being able to say the $16.3 million state share is a sure thing. The district hasn’t passed a bond issue since 1964.

(Enrollment data taken from Department of Education 2009 statistics.)

Mapleton Public Schools Skyline campus

Like North Routt, Mapleton received a BEST award last year but couldn’t use the money because voters defeated a $30 million bond issue by only a few votes.

Mapleton’s latest application proposed only a $10.7 million local match, about half the $21 million required by the state’s formula for matching. Construction board members weren’t comfortable with that and rejected Mapleton’s waiver letter, thereby requiring the full match.

Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio, who attended all three days of the board’s hearings, wasn’t happy with the board’s decision, telling Education News Colorado “It puts us at a disadvantage” when seeking another bond issue this November. “We will go back and try again,” she said.

Ciancio said the district believes that the state’s matching calculations aren’t accurate in Mapleton’s case.

The Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance calculates required matches based on a district’s assessed value per pupil relative to the state average;  median household income relative to the state average; bond redemption fund mill levy relative to the statewide average; the percentage of pupils eligible for free and/or reduced-cost lunch; and bond election effort and success over the last 10 years.

Districts can request waivers from the match formula, and the board has discretion to grant or reject those.

After having given it a preliminary OK Tuesday, the board Wednesday dropped an $18.7 million new-school request from the Rocky Mountain Deaf Charter School in Jefferson County, which serves about 40 students from several districts. The board was concerned that the request was for a new building that could serve four times as many students.

Other proposals that never made the cut included applications from Denver, Aurora, the Odyssey Charter School in DPS, Sheridan, Westminster, Otis, Pueblo County, the Pikes Peak BOCES, Falcon, Florence, the Ross Montessori School in Carbondale, the Eagle County Charter, the West End District at Nucla.

The total lease-purchase package recommended by the board is $165.5 million state money and $66.8 million in local matches. An additional $5 million in state money will be held in reserve to pay federal prevailing wages where required by federal law.

The BEST program is funded by revenues from state school lands and some Lottery funds. The program so far has awarded nearly $311.4 million to 69 projects in 57 districts, which have provided $98.6 million in matching funds. Advisors to the program estimate about $342 million will be available for lease-purchase grants in 2011-12 and 2012-13. After that most of the annual BEST revenue will have to be used for paying previous projects.

The board also approved spending of about $11.3 million of state money in 35 cash grants to school districts for smaller projects such as fire alarm upgrades, new heating and air conditioning systems and roof repairs. That package includes an additional $8.5 million in local matches. (See CDE list of all cash projects.)

There were 102 applicants for cash and lease-purchase projects.

This story was corrected on July 1 to include additional information.

Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.