First Person

Voices: Uncertain future for building funds

Colorado schools need an estimated $13.9 billion in upgrades and Matt Samuelson, special projects director for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, wants to ensure they’ll get it.

A week ago, a board charged with recommending ways to help schools pay for capital construction finalized its list of grant recipients to send to the State Board of Education for approval. If the school districts and charters reach their required matches, $282.7 million worth of school facility projects will move forward across the state through the Building Excellent Schools Today program, otherwise known as BEST.

BEST program illustrationAltogether, provided the current recipients of BEST grants successfully reach their local matches, the state and local schools will have green-lighted nearly $1 billion in K-12 public school facility work in five years. Read more about BEST grant finalists.

All the more impressive, this work has been done without using general fund dollars. The source of BEST funds is the public school capital construction assistance fund, which consists of money earned from a portion of lottery proceeds, interest from the fund and revenue from state public school lands.

The state of Colorado owns roughly 2.7 million acres of surface property and 3.9 million acres of mineral property rights specifically dedicated to the state’s permanent school trust fund, which helps fund BEST and a variety of other educational programs. Revenues generated from these lands occur through three types of land uses: mineral, surface and commercial.  In recent years, oil and gas royalties and leases account for roughly 80 percent of the revenues generated on state trust lands.

Schools need $13.9 billion

The successes have been impressive, but the needs remain great. In 2009, an assessment that examined more than 8,400 public school facilities statewide determined that school districts in Colorado had $13.9 billion in capital construction needs projected through 2013. Just as disconcerting as that staggering number, the assessment determined that the 10-year capital renewal needs of all the state’s K-12 public school facilities was $10.1 billion. That’s a billion dollars annually just to maintain the current stock of facilities.

Created in 2008 with bipartisan support, the state’s capital construction grant program for K-12 public schools has had an immense impact addressing Colorado’s crumbling classrooms. The competitive grant program has provided $674 million in matching grants to school districts, charter schools and boards of cooperative services in order to address public school facility needs. Since its inception, 143 grants have been awarded to 78 school districts, 13 charter schools and the Colorado School for the Deaf & Blind. These projects with BEST funds have taken place across the state of Colorado. See map.

Communities such as Akron, Center, Holly, Monte Vista and Rush now have new schools due to voter-approved bond issue coupled with a BEST grant. The BEST grant was absolutely essential to constructing these schools because many Colorado school districts with low local property wealth are legally restricted by the state from raising enough funds to address their school facility needs locally.

BEST helps older schools too

But it’s not solely new schools that BEST addresses. New roofs and boilers extend the lives of buildings and help to create an effective learning environment. For example, South Routt School District replaced its coal-fired boiler with a biomass boiler by bundling a BEST grant with a local bond issue and other state funds.

John Noriega, a classroom aide at Center's Haskin Elementary, helps student Odalys Mendoza with a math lesson. With help from BEST, Center is replacing the school built in 1919. File photo

By partnering with local school districts and charter schools, BEST has helped tackle some of the state’s public school facility needs. Since the assessment was completed, voters in 30 school districts have been asked to vote on bond questions. Of the 13 successful local bond elections, 12 were to match a BEST grant. Amazingly, in seven of those bond elections, the school district maxed out its bonding capacity in order to provide that local match.

That’s a tall order for school districts lacking a substantial property tax base. For example, in 2010, when voters of Center School District in Saguache County approved its bond measure to match its BEST grant, the district’s mill levy – or tax rate – jumped from 27 to 45. But on Saturday, the community will celebrate the ribbon-cutting of its new PK-12 school facility, which replaces a school constructed in 1919.

However, these ribbon-cutting ceremonies will slow to a trickle under BEST’s current statutory arrangement. The state has a $40 million annual cap for its share of BEST certificate of participation or COP payments. COPs are lease-purchase arrangements utilized by the state to fund large project grants, such as new schools and major renovations.

The current state share of COP payments is $28 million. Entering into last month’s BEST grant selection meetings, the state had $12 million remaining that it could obligate to annual payments for school projects.  According to current interest rates, that would support about $260 million in state share of school projects.

The BEST board will not reach the annual payment threshold after this year’s round of grants. However, the COP cap will most likely be reached in June 2013. Once the state hits that cap, the BEST program runs the risk of not funding new schools and major renovations for several years.

Saving money for schools’ capital needs

Here are some ideas as we barrel toward the COP ceiling:

  1. The cap could be raised by $10 million, which would provide the BEST program another two years of COP funding to address the most egregious facility needs in the state.
  2. A school district could run a bond election based on 6 percent of the district’s actual valuation instead of 20 percent of the district’s assessed valuation. Colorado law (C.R.S 22-42-104(1)(b)) allows districts to use the actual valuation, but the district may want to secure pro bono services from a law firm prior because whispers of TABOR compliance concerns have plagued the actual valuation option.
  3. Wait. After a couple years of payments, the annual COP payment will decrease and there will be another opportunity for a round of new school and major renovations.
  4. Keep the funding mechanism in place. The Colorado Constitution requires that the “public school fund of the state shall, except as provided in this article IX, forever remain inviolate and intact and the interest and other income thereon, only, shall be expended in the maintenance of the schools of the state.” BEST uses income from the fund to help school districts construct buildings that will last 50 to 60 years. Multiple generations of school children will benefit from these schools.

Rumblings of knee-capping the BEST program in order to grow the states permanent school trust fund to $1 billion seem misplaced. Under current investment strategies, a $1 billion permanent school trust fund – used for a variety of educational purposes such as BEST, the School Finance Act and the recent literacy law – will spin off $42 million in interest. That is a significant amount. But it will take upwards of a decade to reach that number. In the meantime, thousands of Colorado children will be forced to attend schools in classroom environments that hinder learning rather than enhancing it.

Leveraging BEST grants with local dollars now allows children across Colorado the opportunity to be educated in safe and secure facilities.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.