Who Is In Charge

JBC votes to cut leadership academy, counselor corps

The Joint Budget Committee Tuesday accepted a staff recommendation to cut the School Leadership Academy and the Colorado Counselor Corps programs in the Colorado Department of Education.

The decision came during committee figure setting for CDE’s administrative and special-programs budgets. The committee did figure setting last week for the bulk of CDE’s budget – aid to school districts (see story “K-12 cuts could top $500 million”).

Both the academy and the corps programs were created by legislative action in the more optimistic spring of 2008, when the state still had spare revenue to devote to extra education programs.

The leadership academy, a Project of Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, is intended to provide principal training. In 2009-10 the program has a budget of $25,000 in federal stimulus funds, provided by Gov. Bill Ritter because the legislature had no state money to fund it. The CDE proposed a 2010-11 budget of $75,000 and part-time staffing, paid from the SEF.

The push for the counselor corps was led by Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora. School districts can apply for state funds to hire extra counselors. The program is designed for schools with dropout and graduation rate challenges. The program got an initial $5 million from the SEF, and the department wants another $5 million from the same source in 2010-11.

The SEF is a separate pot of money that is funded by a small portion of state income tax collections and by whatever transfers legislators choose to make from the state’s main general fund. The SEF used both for special programs and to help top off state aid to school districts. The fund is dwindling, but lawmakers may need to tap it for school aid to relieve some of the pressure on the general fund. So, programs like the leadership academy and counselor corps are vulnerable in this tight budget yet.

Other special CDE programs dear to hearts of some legislators probably won’t be in the 2010-11 budget because the department did its own cutting and didn’t request any funding. Those include the Family Literacy Education Fund, state aid to boards of cooperative education services, civic education, financial literacy, Colorado History Day, funding for the Innovation Schools Act, summer school aid, Dropout Prevention Activity Grants and Regional Services Cooperatives.

The committee didn’t specifically discuss analyst Bernie Gallagher’s leadership and counselor recommendations before approving them.

Committee members did raise some questions about the cost of CSAP testing.

Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge
Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge (file photo)

“Can we start saving some of the $20 million we spend on CSAPs,” asked Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge and JBC vice chair. “$20 million on testing just bothered me right from the start. That’s a lot of money.”

Under terms of the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids law, the state will be moving to a new testing system over the next couple of years.

JBC chair Rep. Jack Pommer. D-Boulder, said testing “is supposed to be shorter and cheaper once we get there” but there will be high costs for implementation.

Gallagher noted the previous – he called it “pie in the sky” – CDE estimate of $80 million for a new system.

Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, wondered if it would be possible for the state to take a one-year testing “holiday” to save money. Similar suggestions have been made in the past by other legislators. CDE officials always patiently explain that federal NCLB requirements make that impractical.

Gallagher also warned that other provisions of CAP4K will require money to implement and “the state will need to strategically prepare for these expenditures.” (An outside consultant is studying those potential costs.) Gallagher, citing his interpretation of media reports, also raised doubts about whether Colorado can count on federal Race to the Top funds to help pay some of those costs. “It sounds like our state is challenged in winning the full $377 million.”

During figure setting for a department, a committee analyst prepares a detailed proposal for the department’s budget, including dollar amounts that will be included in the annual state budget, the long appropriations bill. The committee sometimes has to tweak the numbers before the long bill is introduced late in the session, and the bill is subject to amendment as it moves through the House and Senate.

As part of that process, other CDE programs could be on the chopping block later, depending on the state’s financial situation.

In their figure-setting documents, analysts include what are called “ugly lists,” programs that could be cut if necessary but trims that the analysts aren’t formally recommending.

Gallagher’s CDE ugly list includes 11 programs. The largest seven are:

  • Transfer Read to Achieve cash fund to general fund – $6.5 million
  • Eliminate the Closing the Achievement Gap program – $1.8 million
  • Stop covering school lunch costs for students eligible for reduced prices – $850,000
  • Ending a similar cover-the-gap program for school breakfasts – $700,000
  • Cutting supplemental online services and funding – $530,000
  • Trimming another school breakfast program – $500,000
  • Eliminating CDE’s content specialists – $437,392

Full JBC briefing paper (see pages 65 for the leadership program, 71-72 for the counselor corps and 96-98 for the “ugly list”)

For the record

Tuesday otherwise was a quiet day for education news. The Senate gave unanimous final approval to House Bill 10-1037 (continuation of supplemental online program Senate Bill 10-062 (technical changes in categorical programs).

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.