artistic vision

Denver School of the Arts would grow, move high school program downtown under city plan

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
The Denver School of the Arts vocal jazz ensemble at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Denver’s premier public arts school would relocate its high school program to the heart of the city’s cultural district in a plan revealed Thursday for how to reinvent the decades-old downtown Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The move would allow the in-demand Denver School of the Arts to expand, and the proximity to public transit would remove attendance barriers for students who live far away or whose families can’t drive them to the school’s northeast Denver campus, Denver Public Schools officials said.

“We have a beautiful facility, but we’re isolated where we are,” said Denver School of the Arts principal William Kohut.

To be centrally located and surrounded by professional theaters, concert halls and opera houses — not to mention the urban campuses of several state colleges — would provide “unbelievable” opportunities for the students, he said.

“We are so excited to be part of this magical transformation,” said acting superintendent Susana Cordova, who acted in theater productions when she was a DPS student.

A rendering of the plan for the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
PHOTO: Courtesy City of Denver
A rendering of the plan for the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The Denver School of the Arts this year serves 1,088 kids in sixth through twelfth grade. The plan calls for keeping the middle school in the current building and expanding the program to accept more students, Kohut said.

The high school program, which has 668 students this year, would relocate to a new space within the Performing Arts Complex capable of holding up to 1,000. With two separate facilities, the school could potentially double the number of kids who attend.

Mayor Michael Hancock said he doesn’t know where the city will get the funding for the ambitious project to remake the arts complex into a more open, interactive and diverse destination. A city committee is tasked with delivering a financial plan by the end of the year.

Today, demand for the Denver School of the Arts is high and getting in isn’t easy. The school offers several majors, from orchestra to creative writing to stagecraft, and students must audition for a spot. Admissions data from the 2014-15 school year shows that about half who make the cut come from DPS. Another 37 percent come from other Colorado public schools, while about 14 percent come from private schools or out of state.

In a district where a majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, very few of the kids accepted to the Denver School of the Arts come from low-income schools, according to a recent report by the pro-education-reform organization A Plus Denver. Only eight students from 101 DPS schools where more than 80 percent of kids are living in poverty got into the arts school in the 2014-15 school year, the report found.

Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Denver, said growing the school and relocating it downtown would go a long way toward increasing access for low-income kids.

“It’s bold, it’s smart and I think it’s very doable,” he said.

One idea to further increase access is to get rid of auditions for middle schoolers interested in some of the school’s majors that require less prior knowledge and training, while keeping a competitive admissions process for the high school, Kohut said.

Denver School of the Arts senior Syeeda Keith performs at the unveiling.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver School of the Arts senior Syeeda Keith performs at the unveiling of the plan.

“We need to expand,” he said. “We’re turning away a lot of kids.”

From the city’s perspective, a public arts school would provide a much-needed daytime use for an arts center where most performances take place at night.

“Unless we have matinee performances, it’s pretty sleepy,” said Ginger White-Brunetti, the deputy director of Denver Arts and Venues, which oversees the arts complex.

Several Denver School of the Arts students performed at Thursday’s unveiling, dancing under the complex’s iconic outdoor glass ceiling on the stage where the mayor spoke minutes before, and singing an acapella medley of Michael Jackson songs in the lobby of the Buell Theatre.

“It would be incredible for the students to have access to those venues,” said dancer Olivia Gieringer, who was one of four seniors who performed short dance pieces. “It prepares you for a professional career. All of us are trying to become performers.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.