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State board approves BEST grants

The State Board of Education Wednesday approved $252.1 million in school construction projects and ruled against the Adams 12 Five Star Schools in a dispute with the Prospect Ridge Academy charter school.

The board’s actions were just two of several key decisions and discussions that came during its daylong meeting. The board heard a discouraging report about future state funding of schools, was briefed about a new Department of Education initiative on educator effectiveness and approved the first innovation schools application from a district other than the Denver Public Schools.

BEST grants

The board unanimously approved without change the latest recommendations of the Capital Construction Assistance Board, which supervises the Build Excellent Schools Today program. The board recommends cash grants for both smaller renovation projects and funding for lease-purchase arrangements used to pay for larger construction projects.

The 2010 list includes $232.3 million for larger projects ($165.5 million state, the rest local matches) and $19.8 million in cash grants ($11.3 million state).

The assistance board’s deliberations in June were marked by confusion among some applicants because projects initially were presented by board staff based on building condition criteria but then reprioritized by the board based on additional factors, such as local matches.

State board member Randy DeHoff said, “I got a lot of feedback from rural schools and charter schools … about the process. I would request before we go into the next round we get the stakeholders involved” in discussion of how to improve the selection process.

Vody Herrmann, the assistant commissioner who oversees the construction assistance division, said, “We are absolutely interested in improving the process. … We’ll set something up and sure all the parties are in place.”

(Read the detailed Education News Colorado story about the assistance board’s recommendations, and see the full list of approved projects here.)

Prospect Ridge Academy vs. Adams Five Star

The state board assumed a judicial role in dealing with a dispute between the planned Prospect Ridge Academy and the Adams 12 Five Star Schools, which have been feuding for months. The school had appealed six conditions that the district wanted to impose on the charter, which hopes to open next year.

The board voted unanimously to overturn five of the six conditions, including requirements for enrollment of certain percentages of district residents in the school and certain audit procedures. The case was returned to the district board with those instructions. (See text of the charter’s appeal and the district’s reply.)

The school applied for a charter last October but was denied by the district’s board in December. The charter appealed that rejection to the state board, which last March sent the case back to Adams 12 for negotiations. The school board approved the charter in April, but the school appealed some of the conditions to SBE.

Attorneys Michael Schreiner for the district and Barry Arrington for the school took some lawyerly swipes at each other during formal arguments, and board members clearly picked up on the conflict.

“I know the state board can’t mandate that you get along, [but] there should be a really strong effort to talk about these things,” said board member Marcia Neal, R-3rd District. “I would just strongly urge you to continue the conversation.”

Financial future doesn’t look good

Herrmann gave the board an early preview of what the school finance picture might look like for 2011-12. It wasn’t a happy one.

School-finance legislation passed last spring set $5.4 billion as the minimum amount of “total program funding” (state and local support for basic school operating costs) for both the current year and for 2011-12. If that’s what the 2011 legislature ends up approving for 2011-12, that total would be $519 million less than the $5.9 billion called for by the Amendment 23 funding formula.

There’s also a growing problem with per-pupil support if overall funding stays flat, because enrollment is projected to keep growing. Material provided by Herrmann showed possible per-pupil support of $6,751.17 in 2011-12, compared to the $7,394.94 that would be indicated by the full A23 formula.

“Everything’s really up in the air at this point.” Herrmann said. “I can’t tell you whether there will additional funding” for schools in 20112. “We have multiple forecasts to go through before this becomes a settled question next year.”

Educator effectiveness effort launched

Board members were briefed on a new CDE initiative, the Colorado Educator Effectiveness Project, which will be formally launched at an event next Monday morning at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

The $1 million, two-year project is a joint effort of CDE, the Colorado Legacy Foundation and the New Teacher Project. Major funding ($800,000) is being provided by the Rose Community Foundation.

The intent of the project is to develop a comprehensive set of state policies to improve educator effectiveness, develop best practices, adopt statewide goals for educator effectiveness and ultimately increase the number, percentage and equitable distribution of effective educators in Colorado.

The project joins some other effectiveness efforts already underway, including the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, assigned by law to develop definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness and make other recommendations to the state board next year; the Quality Teachers Commission, which has been working on educator identifiers and equitable distribution of good teachers, and the School Leadership Academy, assigned to work on principal training.

District 11, Wasson get innovation approval

The board unanimously approved innovation status for Colorado Springs District 11 and its Wasson High School.

The state innovation schools law, passed in 2008, allows schools exemption from certain state laws and regulations, including teacher pay and hiring and scheduling. To be approved, schools have to demonstrate internal support for the changes, including from teachers and the broader school community.

Wasson, where 60 percent of entering freshmen are below proficient in reading, writing and math, plans a system that includes a special freshman prep program and then a choice of three “academies” – arts, law and leadership, and life science – for sophomore through senior year. Students also can choose to pursue general studies. (Read the Wasson application.)

Approval of the application is something of an education reform milestone, because Wasson is the first school outside of the Denver Public Schools to apply for and receive the innovation designation.

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