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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.