Future of Schools

Handful of donors dominate contributions in key districts

Two wealthy men, both strong advocates of school choice and vouchers, have provided $140,000 of the $199,000 contributed to eight candidates in four contentious races for the Douglas County school board.

Pile of cashAll of the $100,000 contributed by Alex Cranberg and the $40,000 given by Ralph Nagel has gone to four candidates who support the policies of the current Dougco board, which created a voucher program now on hold because of legal challenges and which ended the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union.

Those four candidates are opposed by a group of four challengers who have criticized the current board for its use of executive sessions, financial policies and on other issues.

The pro-board candidates have raised $156,700, compared to $42,328 for the challengers. The challengers have drawn much larger numbers of small individual donations than have the pro-board candidates.

If the Cranberg and Nagel contributions are deducted, the pro-board group has raised only $16,700. And $12,000 of that has come from three other donors to the pro-board candidates — Bill Armstrong, former Republican U.S. senator and president of Colorado Christian University; lawyer Craig Richardson, and philanthropist Carrie Morgridge.

Cranberg, a former Colorado resident who now lives in Texas, is chair of Aspect Holdings, a Denver-based energy company. He’s a long time advocate of school vouchers. Nagel is president of Top Rock LLC, a Denver-based investment company. Both are board members of ACE Scholarships, a Denver non-profit that provides scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools.

Here’s a rundown on campaign spending reports filed this week by pro-board Dougco candidates:

  • District B, Jim Geddes – $38,797 raised and $11,140 spent
  • District D, Judith Reynolds – $38,731 raised, $8,402 spent
  • District E, Doug Benevento – $40,010 raised $1,094 spent
  • District G – Meghann Silverthorne – $39,162 raised, $15,526 spent

Here are the totals reported by candidates critical of the current board:

  • District B, Barbra Chase – $8,234 raised, $2,628 spent
  • District D, Julie Keim – $7,121 raised, $3,792 spent
  • District E, Bill Hodges – $11,444 raised, $5,914 spent
  • District G, Ronda Scholting – $15,526 raised, $6,057 spent

Giving in other board races

Ideology and partisanship also are factors in a handful of other board races around the state this year.

In Grand Junction, the county Republican Party has endorsed three candidates in races for the Mesa 51 school board. Those candidates, Patrick Kanda, Michael Lowenstein and John Sluder each have received $5,000 from C. Edward McVaney of Greenwood Village, a retired software company owner. McVaney also is on the board of ACE Scholarships and was a founder of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch.

Three other Mesa 51 candidates, John Williams, Tom Parrish and Greg Mikolai have received contributions from the Mesa Valley Education Association and the Public Education Committee, an arm of the Colorado Education Association.

Seven candidates are vying for three seats in Mesa 51, where the total of all contributions is about $46,000.

McVaney also has contributed $5,000 each to three candidates in Thompson school district board races. A group named Liberty Watch has criticized the current school board for various policies and has endorsed four candidates in the district’s four races. McVaney contributed to three of them.

Contributions to the nine candidates on the ballot total about $33,000.

There are partisan overtones in the three Jefferson County school board races this fall, where the county GOP has endorsed three candidates. But there’s little outside money in the races, and those three candidates trail in fundraising. The total raised by all candidates is about $120,000.

Here’s a rundown on their contributions:

  • District 1, Julie Williams – Raised $5,756 and spent $470. Has received primarily small individual contributions.
  • District 2, John Newkirk – Raised $4,255 and spent $1,902. Has received $500 from Armstrong and $215 from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.
  • District 5, Ken Witt – Raised $10,148, spent $2,389. Received $500 from Armstrong.

Here’s a look at the other candidates in the races:

  • District 1, Tonya Aultmann-Bettridge – Raised $25,017, spent $15,759.
  • District 2, Jeff Lamontagne – Raised $39,822, spent $34,787.
  • District 5, Gordon Van de Water – Raised $35,380, spent $3,763.

All three of these candidates had large numbers of relatively small donations from individual contributors. Each also has received a contribution of $3,166 from the Public Education Committee, according to that group’s report.

Around the state, the committee’s Oct. 15 filing reported $49,891 in total contributions to 26 candidates running in 10 districts.

In addition to Jeffco, Mesa and Thompson, the committee has donated to candidates in Aurora, Adams 12-Five Star, Commerce City, Falcon, Littleton and Pueblo 60 races.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.