Who Is In Charge

K-12 cut now looks like $431 million

Thursday roundup
Tax sniping
New bills
For the record

Projected cuts in state aid to K-12 education next school year keep rising, and school administrators fear they will get even bigger.

Todd Herreid, a legislative staff analyst, told members of the House Education Committee Thursday that recent calculations indicate “a decrease in total program spending of at least $431 million compared to current law. This represents a decrease of 7.5 percent.”

Herreid made his comments as he presented the committee with a required annual report on the condition of the State Education Fund, kind of a piggy bank that is one of the sources of state aid to school districts. The report estimates that the SEF will be down to only about $6 million in 2010-11.

The estimated $431 million cut is more precise but is in the same ballpark as a rough estimate Herreid made in late December, when quarterly state revenue forecasts were issued.

In November, Gov. Bill Ritter’s proposed cutting K-12 support by 4.56 percent, or $260 million, from the dollar amount of school aid in the current 2009-10 budget. The Department of Education calculated that cut actually would amount to $374.1 million, or 6.12 percent, when calculated against the full amount school districts would otherwise expect to receive in 2010-11 under full application of the Amendment 23 funding formula.

Herreid’s figure of $431 million represents an increase in CDE’s original $374.1 million estimate.

The Ritter administration has taken the position that Amendment 23 applies only to “base” state funding of schools, about 75 percent of total support. The other 25 percent, nearly $1 billion, is distributed to districts through what are called the “factors,” pots of money designed to compensate districts for cost of living, at-risk students and small size. So, K-12 cuts would be taken in some form from the factors.

Most legislators have at least grudgingly agreed with Ritter’s interpretation of A23. Some interest groups, especially the Colorado Education Association, believe that interpretation is unconstitutional.

Some district administrators fear the effective cut in school instructional budgets could be 10 to 12 percent in 2010-11, given that districts will face increased costs for things like pensions and health insurance at the same time state aid is cut.

So something will have to give, most likely class sizes, teacher jobs and teacher salaries.

The legislature recently passed, and Ritter signed a law, cutting $110 million of state school aid in the current budget year, about 2 percent. The state also isn’t compensating districts for higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students.

Background and EdNews stories

Education in cross fire of tax debate

Program cuts are one side of budget balancing; raising revenue is the other.

For the past two days, the Senate Finance Committee has been working its way through a package of eight bills that propose to eliminate various tax exemptions and use the revenue for both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets.

The debate has been partisan, with Republicans opposing and majority Democrats supporting – and passing – the bills.

Supporters argue that failure to pass the tax bills will force even deeper education cuts, a contention that was challenged by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, during a Wednesday evening hearing.

According to a GOP news release, King “blasted the lobbyists for two liberal education groups that were falsely claiming the revenue generated from the Democrats tax increase plan would go towards K-12 education.” The release identified the groups as the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives, groups that teachers’ unions – or education reformers for that matter – might not think of as “liberal.”

GOP staffers also cranked out a news release promoting a Republican proposal to cut state payroll rather than eliminate the tax exemptions.

By early Thursday evening, Senate Finance has passed all but two of the tax bills. The package will go to the Senate floor Friday afternoon.

Ed bills continue to stack up

A large number of new bills were introduced in the Senate Thursday, including three related to education:

• Senate Bill 10-150 – This measure would allow additional revenues from state lands to flow to the Public School Fund rather than the permanent fund for 2010-11 only. This is a way to raise a little more cash for K-12 schools. Most school aid comes from the tax-supported general fund, which lawmakers frantically are trying to balance, with a lesser amount coming from the State Education Fund and the smallest amount from the Public School Fund. Sponsored by Joint Budget Committee members.

• Senate Bill 10-154 – The bill would expand the definition of “at-risk student” as it applies to alternative schools, which have separate accreditation standards because of their high percentages of at-risk students. At-risk usually is defined as eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. The bill would expand that to “include children with disabilities, migrant children, homeless children, children with a documented history of serious psychiatric or behavioral disorders, and children who are 2 or more years behind grade level as determined by statewide assessments or by other assessments,” in the words of the summary. Sole sponsor for now is Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver.

• Senate Bill 10-161 – The proposal would allow charter schools to contract with boards of cooperative education services and other charters for buildings and services. Sponsors are Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

For the record

The House Thursday gave preliminary voice approval to House Bill 10-1064, which would require high school athletes to use the standard Colorado High School Acivities Association appeals process for eligibility disputes before taking a case to outside arbitration or to court.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 10-1044, which would require state licensing of neighborhood youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, and House Bill 10-1013, a technical cleanup of school finance laws.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.