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State school repair costs monumental

Colorado schools have $17.8 billion in maintenance and renovation needs over the next eight years, according to a statewide schools facilities study released Wednesday.

The study, required as part of the 2008 Building Excellent Schools Today law, was the first-ever comprehensive structural review of 8,419 buildings, from large classroom buildings to sheds.

The $17.8 billion estimate covers only what the study calls Tier I buildings – basically those used for instruction.

The study found those buildings need $9.4 billion of deferred maintenance work between now and 2013. An additional $13.9 billion is needed for energy and educational suitability projects. A final $3.9 billion in work is estimated to be necessary from 2014-18.

The study was released to the State Board of Education Wednesday afternoon.

Ted Hughes, director of the Capital Construction Assistance Division, noted that the study was the first-ever statewide inventory of school buildings and their conditions.

He said the division still has to come up with a ranking system for buildings and is planning to put all the data in a searchable database, to be called Schoolhouse that will include district and individual building information. The database will be updated regularly.

Mary Wickersham, chair of the Capital Construction Assistance Board, wasn’t shocked by the numbers, saying. “A lot of us have known for a long time the broad-stroke dimensions.” Wickersham several years ago led a less extensive study of school conditions. From that, she said, researchers roughly estimated $10 billion in needs.

Board members received the report with only a few comments.

The assessment isn’t a priority list from which state officials will choose projects. That’s because BEST is an opt-in program for which districts and charters must apply. But, the construction board will use the list to help set priorities among applicants. The program also is designed to encourage use of local matching grants, with only a few projects supported fully by state funds.

Edison School in El Paso County has long been a poster child for school building problems.

Edison School in El Paso County has long been a poster child for school building problems.

The BEST program was approved by the legislature in 2008 and is funded by revenues from state school lands and some other sources but not from tax dollars. Applications are evaluated and ranked by the appointed Capital Construction Assistance Board and its staff and forwarded to SBE. The program matches state funds with local money to either directly fund construction costs or to pay off lease-purchase arrangements.

Last August the state board approved the first major round of projects. That project list totaled $210 million, including a $127.5 million state share, another $7.6 million to cover any higher labor costs that might be required by federal law and $75.6 million in local matching money.

The state made cash grants of $15 million, matched by $18.7 million in local money. The state is putting up $112.5 million to pay off lease-purchases (called certificates or participation, or COPs), which will be matched by $57 million in local money. (Two of the projects subsequently were canceled. Voters in the Mapleton Schools last fall defeated a bond issue that would have provided the local match for a $51.3 million project. A $3.1 million grant to the North Routt Charter School was canceled because the school wanted to raise its $1.6 million match using a bank loan, which isn’t permitted.)

About $98 million was approved last March for 11 other projects, several of which needed money to complete work started under previous, smaller state grant programs. Three other awards totaling $4 million were made in April.

The construction board is accepting applications through April 9 for the 2010 round of grants. The BEST law gives priority to health and safety projects, followed by those designed to relieve overcrowding and to make technology upgrades.

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New district accreditation system taking shape

The state board Wednesday also took testimony on proposed new rules for accrediting school districts but delayed a final vote until its April meeting to allow more time for public comment.

Some school districts and the Colorado Association of School Boards still have concerns about the proposed rules.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones said, “This is a very, very important milestone for the state … this is major change.”

He said to the board, “I think you’ll see that while nobody will like everything in the rules, the department has been responsive to feedback. The rules have landed in a place that I strongly support.”

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, acknowledged CDE’s cooperation but still expressed concerns about the new system.

“This is a complex statute and these are complex rules. … That complexity has some implications. It’s going to change how we do business in school districts. … We are moving away from a community, locally based system … to a system that’s run out of this building and the buildings in Washington, D.C.”

State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District

State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District

Board member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District and a former Boulder school board member, responded by saying setting goals is the state’s role and the methods for achieving them are up to local districts. With SB 09-163, she said, “We are losing the option in our districts to allow kids to not learn.”

The rules will give school districts the guidelines for following Senate Bill 09-163, which was passed by the 2009 legislature and revamps the state systems for accrediting school districts, assisting and intervening in districts with persistent low accreditation status; the way districts accredit individual schools, and how school performance is reported to the public and parents.

Advisory committees and Department of Education staff have been working on the rules since last year. The board will vote on the rules at its April 14-15 meeting, and the new rules will go into effect in May, with implementation beginning in the fall.

Under the new law, the state board will set targets every year for how a district has to perform in key areas to gain accreditation at one of six levels.

The key areas are student growth, as measured by test scores; postsecondary and workforce readiness, as measured by ACT test scores and, later, performance on the new state postsecondary and workforce readiness test; student achievement levels on tests, and dropout rates and achievement gaps based on income and ethnicity.

The state board is to adopt targets by Nov. 30 each year that will the basis for the accreditation levels. Each year’s target will apply to the next full school year.

Once the new plan is fully in effect, the state will assign accreditation ratings every November, districts that are lower-ranked will have to submit improvement plans by January and plans would be published on the SchoolView.org website in April.

Accreditation contracts run for a year and are renewed  only if a district is in one of the top two levels. The old law has six-year contracts.

The six types of accreditation are:

  • Level 1 – Accredited with distinction
  • Level 2- Accredited
  • Level 3 – Accredited with improvement plan
  • Level 4 – Accredited with priority improvement plan
  • Level 5 – Accredited with turnaround plan
  • Level 6 – Unaccredited. In such cases the state board will determine whether a district needs reorganization, external management, conversion to innovation status or charter or school closure.

The old law has a somewhat dfferent six-level system.

The law gives the commissioner of educationthe authority to create a state review panel that will evaluate improvement strategies and recommend interventions.

If a district fails to make adequate progress under a turnaround plan or continues under a turnaround or priority improvement plan for a combined total of five years, the commissioner can ask the review panel to look at conversion of the district. There was no timeline in the old law.

Districts are to evaluate schools on at least the same level as state requirements but can be more rigorous. Districts will assign accreditation status to individual schools that is aligned with and meets or exceeds the rigor of the state system.

Previous law included only general goals for district performance, didn’t require SBE review of targets and had no state review panel.

CDE information on the new accreditation system, including draft of proposed rules, summaries and background.

Declining enrollment study almost done

The board received an early peek at a comprehensive study of the effects of declining enrollment on school districts.

The study was requested by the legislature in 2008 but was delayed a year because of budget cuts. It’s due to be publicly released next Monday. The study was done by Pacey Economics Group of Boulder, whose president, Patricia Pacey, also happens to be a member of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Although there’s been modest statewide student growth over the past several years, most of Colorado’s 178 school districts actually are declining. The issue is important to districts because state aid to schools is based on enrollment, so there are budget impacts for declining districts. (Current law allows districts to average declines over several years.)

Calling the study “an enormous undertaking” that involved analysis of six years’ worth of enrollment, teacher statistics, spending, revenues and CSAP scores, Pacey gave the board some highlights of the study, including:

Overall student performance doesn’t seem to vary by district size or location.

Because of fixed costs, school districts have little financial flexibility in responding to declining enrollment and aid.

The percentages of budget that districts spend on various items such as instruction or transportation varies little between large and small and urban/suburban and rural districts.

“School choice costs money,” meaning that both district and Charter School Institute Schools affect the finances of districts.

School district consolidation wouldn’t yield significant savings if done on an across-the-board or formula basis although it might be useful for some districts, depending on local circumstances.

Pacey said her researchers didn’t independently study the issue of “adequacy” – how much money is needed for an effective education system – but that the study does contain a summary of other adequacy research.

She did note that that other research indicates Colorado school spending has fallen 20 percent behind inflation since 2002.

Educator ID program on track

Department of Education staff told the board that the new educator ID program is on track to issue eight-digit ID to eligible teachers and some other school personnel by June 30.

The ID program, passed by the legislature last year, is considered central to many education improvement efforts, such as tying student performance to teacher evaluations.

Earlier this year the legislature passed Senate Bill 10-036, which will require that the performance of teachers in their first three years of work be correlated with whatever teacher preparation program they attended. Other future uses of the educator ID remain to be determined.