Who Is In Charge

School finance done despite Senate feud

The Senate Tuesday evening approved yet another version of the 2009-10 school finance act, but not before Republicans lambasted the Democratic majority for supporting an “irresponsible” bill. The House approved the compromise with less fuss, making the bill a done deal.

The latest chapter in the saga of Senate Bill 09-256 started Monday morning, when the Senate rejected the first conference committee report on Senate Bill 09-256, forcing House and Senate negotiators back to the table.

A few hours later, the conference committee approved a tweaked proposal for consideration by the two houses.

The key issue with the bill has been whether there should be a $110 million reduction in the overall increase in state aid to K-12 schools next year. The Senate proposed a $150 million cut, to help temporarily preserve the solvency of the State Education Fund. An early House version proposed a $110 million cut, but that was stripped on the floor.

The conference committee initially proposed giving school districts the $110 million – but to tell them it can’t be spent until Jan. 6, 2010, after the Joint Budget Committee has reviewed December revenue forecasts and decides if further state budget cuts are needed.

The revised proposal approved 4-2 by the committee Tuesday afternoon puts that date back to Jan. 29, 2009, and would designate the full legislature, not the JBC, as the body to decide whether the money should be held back.

The Senate spent half an hour Tuesday evening squabbling over the latest plan.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “Members, we changed nothing. All we did was move the date.”

King, who warned that not trimming the K-12 increases would lead to serious higher education cuts in 2010-11, moved to stick to the original Senate version but lost that motion.

Other Republicans picked up King’s song, but to no avail. The Senate voted 20-15 to adopt the second conference committee report, and then 21-14 to readopt the bill. Lame-duck Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, voted against the committee report but for the bill. He then asked his name be removed as a cosponsor. Several reform-oriented aspects of the original bill had Groff’s backing, but most didn’t survive once the bill reached this House.

As it settled out, the bill is pretty much the House’s creation, and representatives approved the second conference committee report.

Representatives had voted 65-0 Monday evening to repass the original compromise.

The committee proposal still includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and gives charter schools a small victory on facilities funding. The proposal accepts the House’s modest proposal for at-risk incentive funding (in contrast to the Senate’s original, expansive plan) and wouldn’t tinker with school funding formulas, which the original Senate version did, to the advantage of some school districts and the disadvantage of others.

The “escrow” proposal for the $110 million has a number of attractions for the legislature and advocacy groups interested in the debate.

– It lets the legislature avoid for now the issue of possibly violating Amendment 23 by trimming the increase in overall education spending. But, it also gives the legislature the option of taking back the money later – before it’s been spent – if the state’s revenue situation deteriorates further.

– It gives school districts the full amount of funding they feel A23 calls for – but allows them to keep that money off the table when setting or negotiating salaries for next school year. (Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver and conference committee chair, made clear during the conference committee meeting, “Districts should be on warning … districts should not put this in employment contracts.”

The committee proposal also includes a provision that would require the $5 million in charter school facilities funding be paid in 12 installments. There’s been endless debate over that issue since the $10 million in charter facilities funding originally in the 2008-09 budget was cut earlier this session.

The legislature could have to face further cuts, perhaps including in school spending, well before next January. The next formal state revenue forecast will be issued in late May, and it’s widely felt that bad numbers could trigger the need for a special legislative session this summer to cut the budget further.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.