Denver voters to decide extension, expansion of preschool program in November

Denver’s City Council on Monday night agreed to ask the city’s voters to extend and raise a sales tax to fund a preschool program that provides tuition scholarships to families of four-year-olds.

The vote, 10-1, was expected.

If approved by Denver voters, the sales tax would be raised from .12 percent to .15 percent, or 15 cents for every $100 spent in Denver on taxable items. It would also extend the tax until 2026.

The additional revenue would go to reinstate summer programs and keep up with the demand of full- and extended-day options, officials from the Denver Preschool Program have said.

Mayor Michael Hancock announced his intent to campaign for the tax increase earlier this summer. The official campaign backing the tax, Preschool Matters, is co-chaired by Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks and has some of Denver’s most influential politico heavyweights behind it.

Still, Denver voters narrowly approved the tax in 2006 — the third time supporters took the initiative to the ballot. And supporters, while confident they have the data to prove the Denver Preschool Program is a success, are prepping for an uphill battle.

Since 2007, the program has provided about $55 million in tuition credits to 31,816 four-year-olds. The credit is determined by family need and the quality of the preschool provider. The average tuition credit during the 2013-14 school year was $290. The Denver Preschool Program also conducts quality reviews and professional development for its partnered-preschool providers.

Eight individuals spoke in favor of the ballot initiative at the council meeting.

“I can see a notable difference in the student who attend a preschool program,” said Stephanie Romero. Students who do not attend preschool “lack the confidence to become independent learners.”

Single mother JoMarie Garcia told the council the Denver Preschool Program allowed her to send her student to preschool, something she didn’t think she could afford. Her preschooler was also ready for kindergarten by the end of the year.

“My daughter went into preschool already able to sound out words,” Garcia said. “When she went into kindergarten she was ready to read.”

Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, the lone no vote, said she supports early childhood education but she would rather see the state’s program expand rather than the city — which has no official business in public education — take on the effort.

She also raised concerns about the programs administrative expenses. Under city ordinance, the Denver Preschool Program has a 5 percent limit on administrative costs. But Faatz believes its much higher because it doesn’t consider media or customer service as contract work.

Part of the reauthorization would allow the program to increase its administrative costs by 2 percent. Faatz estimated the program could be spending as much as 19 percent of its budget on items not related to tuition credits.

“That’s just too high,” she said.

The program’s CEO Jennifer Landrum said using Faatz’s math, the total costs discussed was about 10 percent of the programs budget $11.8 million budget.