Who Is In Charge

Merit aid passes, Dougco bill dies

The House Education Committee Wednesday gave 12-0 approval to a bill that’s intended to create a way for state colleges to raise cash from out-of-staters to pay for merit scholarships for top Colorado students.

Colorado CapitolAcross the hall in the Capitol basement, the House Local Government Committee killed a bill that was sparked by conflict between the Douglas County school board and citizen groups.

The scholarship bill, introduced only on Tuesday, is a “do-over” measure drafted after a proposed $3 million for merit aid was stripped from the main 2013-14 budget bill because of a dispute over whether undocumented students would be eligible for the scholarships.

House Bill 13-1320 doesn’t carry any funding. Rather it would allow state colleges and universities, with certain restrictions, to raise limits on the number of out-of-state students they enroll.

The theory behind the bill is that increasing the number of non-resident students – who on average pay $13,300 more a year than Colorado students at four-year schools – will allow tapping some of those funds to pay for the merit scholarships.

The bill “creates more money because they pay a higher rate,” said sponsor Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs Republican who’s House minority leader. His partner on the bill is House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder.

“Does anything more need to be said? Two leaders, vote yes,” Waller joked.

State-funded merit scholarships were scrapped a few years ago because of state budget cuts. (The state still provides funding for need-based aid.) Administrators, particularly at the University of Colorado, complain that universities in other states are luring top Colorado students with hefty aid packages. “The recruiting landscape has become extremely competitive,” Kevin McLennen, CU-Boulder admissions director, testified.

The bill is still under construction, primarily because it contains no descriptions or standards for what the merit scholarships would look like. Backers of the bill are in negotiations with the Department of Higher Education about adding some detail to the bill. Next stop for the measure is House Appropriations.

By the way, the merit scholarships would be available to undocumented students.

Learn more about the bill in this legislative staff summary.

Inauspicious day for executive sessions bill

Wednesday was an unlucky day in the local government panel for House Bill 13-1313, a bill that would have changed state open meetings law. The measure was prompted by the concerns of some Dougco citizens that the school board is using executive sessions improperly.

Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, said the board last year spent half its time in executive session, much more time than in past years. “I have witnessed on too many occasions the important decisions being made behind closed doors.” Under state law only personnel matters, real estate deals and consultations with lawyers can be held in closed-door meetings.

Susan Meek of the group Strong Schools Coalition also testified for the bill. Brenda Smith, head of the AFT-affiliated Dougco teachers union, attended the hearing but didn’t testify. (The union has its own set of conflicts with the conservative school board.)

As originally drafted, the measure would have required that all executive sessions be recorded; current law requires recording but allows it to turned off when elected officials are in private meetings with lawyers. If citizens had concerns about an executive session, they could ask a judge to review the tape. The bill also would have required that elected bodies keep a log of how much time was spent on different issues discussed in private.

Because the bill would have applied to all elected local government bodies – county commissions, city councils and other groups as well as school boards – it drew opposition from a couple of powerful interest groups, Colorado Counties Inc. and the Colorado Municipal League. The Colorado Association of School Boards also had issues with the bill. There were concerns that the measure would have diluted the principle of attorney-client confidentiality.

Facing those headwinds, sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, offered an amendment that stripped the recording provision and retained only the time-keeping requirement.

Some committee members also were concerned about the attorney-client privilege issue, and others wondered why the dispute required a statewide solution.

“It sounds like this is a local issue. We can’t legislate trust for Douglas County,” said Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora and committee chair.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said the two citizen groups “frankly represent a stark minority of voters in our county” and suggested they seek a solution in court, not in the legislature.

A motion to advance the bill failed on a 5-8 vote, with a coalition of Republicans and Democrats voting no. The measure then was postponed indefinitely on a 7-6 vote.

Alternative schools accreditation bill moves on

House Education voted 13-0 to pass Senate Bill 13-217, a seemingly technical measure that could have important implications for school districts working to raise low state accreditation ratings.

The bill would allow the State Board of Education to adjust how the performance of students at alternative education campuses affects district accreditation levels. Such campuses, which have special status under state law, typically serve very high percentages of at-risk students, such as dropouts, teen parents and students under court supervision.

The state sets different rating standards for alternative schools than for other schools. But currently the performance of alternative school students isn’t weighted any differently when rolled into a district’s rating.

Some districts have been concerned that current system inappropriately drags down their accreditation ratings.

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.