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BEST board wrestles with grant system

Historic schools turned out to be the hot topic Friday at a daylong session that the state Capital Construction Assistance Board held to discuss improving how it makes grants.

The board administers the Build Excellent Schools Today program, which provides renovation and construction funds to districts and charter schools, especially those with limited tax bases that make it hard to raise construction funds from local bond issues.

The school in Silverton is one historic building that's received BEST funds.
The school in Silverton is one historic building that's received BEST funds.
Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

While the BEST program has been widely praised, stresses have developed in the details of how it operates, and the board has been discussing improvements for some time.

Of particular concern has been how the board and the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance prioritize applications, the calculation of local matches and the approval of match waivers, and the question of whether applicants should have facilities master plans.

Friday’s meeting was called to allow interested parties – school districts, charters, architects, project planners and others – to express their views on those issues and others (see agenda).

As things turned out, public comment was relatively modest, board members spent much of the time talking among themselves and three issues dominated the discussion – project rankings and matches, historic schools and master plans.

No changes or decisions were made at Friday’s meeting. Division staff members were assigned to develop specific proposals on several issues for the board’s Nov. 11 session. There is some pressure to make changes quickly because the application window for the next grant cycle opens in December.

Here are the highlights of discussion on key issues:

Historic preservation

This provided the liveliest discussion of the day. Under state law, the State Historical Fund reviews state-funded construction plans on buildings more than 50 years old and can request changes to preserve historic character.

Rural districts, many with older buildings, feel that review slows their building programs.

“It should never happen that the historical society is telling local communities what to do with their buildings,” said board member Dave Van Sant, a retired superintendent. “This is the number one issue for rural schools.”

Van Sant said bipartisan legislation is being drafted that will fix the problem to the satisfaction of schools.

Vody Herrmann, school finance chief for the Department of Education, said, “The historical society ought to go to the legislature for additional grant money” if it wants project changes that will increase costs. (The historical society recently has re-branded itself as History Colorado, but the old name was used in the board’s conversations.)

No one from the society was in the room during the height of board discussion, but Steve Turner of the State Historical Fund showed up later to give his side of the story. (Van Sant, in the meantime, had left.)

“We have some growing pains we’re going through here,” he said, suggesting that earlier involvement by his group in construction projects might help things. He maintained historic review “is not an attempt to hold up projects.”

Representatives of the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind told the board about on ongoing dispute over windows that they’re having with the historical society.

Existing law contains a way to solve preservation disputes – an appeal to the governor. That’s only been used in one case, the proposed demolition of an old school in Center, which the governor approved.

Application ranking

The grant awards made by the board last summer left several school districts and charters unhappy because the list of winners varied significantly from the list of applications presented by division staff, which ordered projects based on various building-condition factors.

The board came up with its final list after applying additional factors, such as local matches.

Vincent Badolato of the Colorado League of Charter Schools said, “The re-ranking process left many applicants dissatisfied.”

Board members aren’t insensitive to the issue; “We all felt kind of a sense of frustration,” Van Sant said.

Division staff members are working on a refined scoring system that will be presented to the board next month. The board also discussed whether to allow applicants to make presentations directly to the board before winners are decided. Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus testified that her group supports that idea.

But board members warned that the process perhaps couldn’t be changed to provide the level of predictability that some witnesses said they wanted.

“There will always be elements in every project that are not reducible to scores,” said board Chair Mary Wickersham.

Local matching funds and waivers

As passed by the legislature, BEST funding was intended to include both state grants and local matches. The law sets different matching criteria for district schools and charters, and the division recalculates matching criteria every year.

Jessica Johnson of the charter league cited figures showing that charters, overall, seem to be held to higher matches than district schools.

Hughes said, “I think we need to revisit” matching formulas and that legislative changes in the BEST law might be needed. Herrmann also said she believes lawmakers need to deal with the issue.

Applicants can request waivers from matching requirements, which differ district to district. Most applicants request them, and board does grant some.

Board members Friday repeated what they’ve said before: Districts need to stress unique circumstances for waivers, not just plead general financial hardship, something being experienced by every district in the state these days.

Master plans

The board also had a lively discussion on the issue of facilities master plans. The division prefers but doesn’t require applicants to have master plans.

The cost of such plans is an issue for smaller districts, Randall said. He noted that superintendents ask themselves, “Do I pay for a master plan or do I hire a teacher?”

The board kicked around the idea of subsidizing the cost of master plans but didn’t settle on any details of how that might be done.

What’s next

Earlier this year the board approved and the State Board of Education ratified $252.1 million in construction projects, a mix of state and local funds and of small and large projects (see story). Larger projects are paid for through lease-purchase agreements.

At its November meeting the board also take a final look at those grants. That’s because several of the grants depend on districts passing bond issues in next Tuesday’s elections. Districts that don’t raise their local matches lose their state funds.

Earlier this year the board selected Akron as an “alternate” district that will receive funding if other districts don’t pass their bonds. The rub for Akron is that it has had to pitch voters on its own $7.7 million bond issue without being able to say the $16.3 million state share is a sure thing.

“It’s good to have alternates, but it’s hard to be the alternate,” Akron Superintendent Bryce Monasmith told the board Friday, noting the challenge of making that pitch to voters.

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