Colorado

Wide gaps in DPS board fundraising persist in second campaign filings

DPS logoDenver Public Schools board candidates who support the current district administration’s slate of policies continue to far outpace their opponents in fundraising, according to the second round of campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office on Friday.

Overall, candidates for DPS board seats raised nearly $149,000 in the past two and a half weeks, bringing total campaign donations in the race to $744,116.

Nine candidates are vying for four seats on the seven-member board. The races have been closely watched because while the current board has been supportive of the district and Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s accountability-based reform policies, that majority is narrow and could flip if more critics of the administration are elected. A sense of the high stakes in the races has motivated a spate of high-level donations, primarily to the four candidates who have pledged to continue the district’s current trajectory.

Friday’s filings show that pattern continuing. The bulk of the money raised in the reporting period — $113,580 — was given to those four: former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien running at-large, former Denver Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez in District 2, lawyer Mike Johnson in east Denver’s District 3 and Urban League executive Landri Taylor in northeast Denver’s District 4.

The remaining $35,389 raised went to candidates who are critical of the current administration’s focus on school choice, teacher accountability and data-driven decision-making and who have promised to push the district’s emphasis more to neighborhood schools. Those candidates are software company manager Michael Kiley in the at-large race, community organizer Rosario C. de Baca in District 2, activist and school volunteer Meg Schomp in District 3 and water engineer Roger Kilgore in District 4.

A third candidate in the at-large race, Joan Poston, does not fall into either camp. She has also not established a campaign committee and is not raising any money from outside donors.

Here’s a breakdown of how much money each candidate has raised since October 15:

At-large

  • Kiley – Raised $3,989 in this reporting period, bringing his total to $36,469. He spent $4,078 during the period, leaving him with $8,567 on-hand.
  • O’Brien – Raised $17, 975 during the reporting period, bringing her fundraising total to $191,299, the largest any single candidate has raised in the campaign. She spent $60,332 since October 15, leaving her with $5,918 on-hand.
  • Poston – She doesn’t have a campaign committee and reported spending $311 of her own money.

District 2

  • C. de Baca – Raised $5,170 in the past two and a half weeks, brining her total to $23,335 over the course of the campaign. She spent $6,529 during the reporting period and has $10,224 on-hand. She also received $579 in non-monetary contributions.
  • Rodriguez – Raised $30,040 since October 15, the largest amount raised by a candidate in the reporting period. That brings her total contributions to $117, 760. She spent $31,355 in the period and has $27,294 on-hand.

District 3

  • Johnson – Raised $27,619 in the reporting period, which brings his total fundraising take to $173,754, second only to O’Brien. He spent $52,873 during the period and has $16,711 on-hand.
  • Schomp – Raised $14,220 since October 15, the largest fundraising take of any of the candidates critical of the current administration. That brings her total to $46,169. She also received $579 in non-monetary contributions. She spent $14,052 during the period and has $3,783 on-hand.

District 4

  • Kilgore — Raised $12,010 during the reporting period, bringing his total to $45,279. Kilgore also received $1,079 in non-monetary contributions. He spent $18,366 and has $3,241 on-hand.
  • Taylor – Raised $37,946 since October 15, bringing his total fundraising levels to $110,051. Taylor also received $498 in non-monetary contributions. He spent $37,622 and has $15,002 on-hand.

The largest single donations came from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which gave $12,000 to Schomp, $7,000 to Kilgore and $4,000 to C. de Baca, as well as non-monetary contributions for staff support and event expenses to all four.

But the candidates who support the administration benefited from large donations from a variety of advocacy organizations and wealthy donors from Colorado and out-of-state. Democrats for Education Reform’s Colorado political committee gave O’Brien, Rodriguez and Taylor $2,000 each, while Stand for Children Colorado gave O’Brien, Johnson and Taylor $1,800 each.

Houston hedge fund billionaire John Arnold, his wife Laura and their foundation gave a combined $23,900 to the four candidates, while Katherine Bradley, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based education philanthropy CityBridge Foundation gave a combined $6,500 to the group.

Locally, Pat Hamill of Oakwood Homes gave Rodriguez, Johnson and Taylor a combined $18,000. Denver Art Museum president Cathey Finlon gave O’Brien and Johnson each $500 and gave $1,000 to both Taylor and Rodriguez.

Fundraising in the district board race appears to be proceeding at a similar pace to the 2011 board races. Candidates this year raised more money in the second filing round than they did in 2011, but overall fundraising levels are a bit less than they were at this point in the 2011 race, when candidates had raised around $790,000.

Candidates will file campaign finance reports one final time, after next week’s election.

Contributions in other districts

In Jefferson County, an independent committee named Believe in Better Schools reported spending $22,804, most of it in support of candidates that have been endorsed by the county Republican Party. Those include Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt.

Spending was on newspaper and social media advertising and on direct mail.

The group received its funding from Jeffco Students First Action, a group that has been critical of district policies but which itself doesn’t have to report its contributors.

Here’s a breakdown of total direct contributions to candidates:

District 1 — Tonya Aultman-Bettridge reported $23,749, plus $3,300 in loans. Williams has total contributions of $5,756.

District 2 – Newkirk has raised $4,785 while Jeff Lamontagne has raised $55,539, including a small contribution from the Jefferson County Education Association Small Donor Committee and $8,166 from the Public Education Committee, an affiliate of the Colorado Education Association.

District 5 – Witt has raised $11,037 while Gordan Van de Water has raised $37,395.

Races for three seats in the Grand Junction-based Mesa 51 district have a partisan tone, with county Republicans endorsing a slate of candidates and out-of-district conservative donors providing funding for those candidates.

In the latest reporting period, GOP-endorsed candidates each received $2,000 contributions from Ralph Nagel, president of Top Rock LLC, a Denver-based investment company, and a strong supporter of school choice. Nagel also has provided substantial donations to conservative board candidates in Douglas County.

The Mesa GOP candidates, Patrick Kanda, Michael Lowenstein and John Sluder, each previously received $5,000 from C. Edward McVaney of Greenwood Village, a retired software company owner. McVaney is on the board of ACE Scholarships and was a founder of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch.

Despite the out-of-district donations, opponents of those three candidates lead in overall fundraising. Here’s the rundown:

In District C, Kanda has raised $7,344 compared to $11,046 for John Williams, who’s received support from the Mesa Valley Education Association, the local union. A third candidate, Lonnie White, hasn’t filed any financial reports.

In District D, Lowenstein has raised $9,143, trailing opponent Tom Parrish’s $12,367.

In District E, Sluder has raised $8,101 compared to $8,627 for opponent Greg Mokolai. He’s also received help from the Mesa Valley teachers union.

Nagel and McVaney also have donated to candidates in the Thompson school district, where a group named Liberty Watch is backing Donna Rice, Bryce Carlson, Rocci Bryan and Carl Langer.

Those candidates have raised a total of $33,150, with $26,000 of that from McVaney and Nagel.

The other candidates, Lori Ward, Gerald Lauer and incumbents Jeff Berg and Janice Marchman, have raised a total of $15,002. Some of them have received support from union committees.

This post has been updated to add information about fundraising in other districts and about individual donors. 

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.