Who Is In Charge

Bottle bill tossed in trash

A bill proposing to put a 5-cent deposit on many beverage bottles – and to give part of the expected revenues to education – was killed 5-4 Wednesday afternoon by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Rally in support of bottle bill
Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association, promoted the proposed bottle bill at a Capitol rally Feb. 23, 2011.

It was a case of youthful enthusiasm meeting economic analysis and political might, and the latter two won.

The idea behind House Bill 11-1247 came from students at the Denver Green School and the Crest Academy in Salida, and a large contingent of students showed up in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers to urge passage of their bill, flanked by piles of trash bags filled with empty bottles.

Earlier in the day, the students rallied for TV cameras with Democratic sponsors Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver and Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass, along with Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

A legislative staff fiscal analysis of the bill estimated it would raise $79 million in the first year, with some $28.8 million flowing to the State Education Fund.

Students from Denver Green School
Students from the Denver Green School testified in favor of the bottle bill at the Capitol Feb. 23, 2011.

The more than three hours of testimony and committee discussion started with the students pitching the bill and ended with industry representatives opposing the measure.

In between all of that, Massachusetts economist Kevin Dietly, testifying on behalf of one opposing group, dispassionately dissected the bill as a bad idea economically.

A repeated criticism of the bill was that it would undermine curbside recycling efforts, which Dietly said are much more economically efficient than a bottle deposit system. Ten states have bottle deposit laws, some of which were passed before the advent of curbside recycling.

The potential costs to retailers and consumers, plus fears about “smuggling” of out-of-state empties into Colorado and concerns about sanitation at recycling sites and grocery stores, seemed to worry Republican members of the committee, who all voted against the bill in the end.

Education funding wasn’t mentioned except briefly by the students, who praised the bill as good for the environment, good for education and good for their futures.

The kids left long before the vote and before Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, accused bill sponsor Pabon of using the students.

Trash bags
After the bottle bill was killed, trash bags full of empties that had been used as props ended up in a Capitol hallway.

“I am incredibly disappointed that we would bring Colorado schoolchildren into the state Capitol and use them the way we used them today. … To teach our schoolchildren one side of this issue without helping them understand the whole issue … I believe is incredibly irresponsible.”

Pabon didn’t rise to the bait, but three other Democratic representatives – Claire Levy of Boulder, Lois Court of Denver and Nancy Todd of Denver – chastised Waller.

“I think it is very unfair to suggest that Rep. Pabon is somehow cynically exploiting innocent students to advance his bill,” Levy said in her usual clipped manner.

The rest of the committee members sat silent, discomfort obvious on some of their faces.

The bill likely was doomed from the start, given the feelings of most House Republicans about government programs and mandates and given the heavyweight business opposition. Those opponents included Safeway, Nestle Waters, Waste Management Inc., the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Retail Council and the Colorado Beverage Association, on whose behalf Dietly testified.

Charter management bill slenderized

Sen. Evie Hudak’s original version of Senate Bill 11-069 would have required Department of Education licensing of educational management organizations, the growing group of companies and non-profits that run charter and other kinds of schools.

That approach gathered resistance, and the Westminster Democrat on Wednesday proposed an amendment that assigns to the Charter School and Charter Authorizer Standards Review Committee, an existing group that is studying charter school standards, to also study the management issue.

The amended bill also would require the Department of Education to post information about active educational management organizations on its website starting in 2012. The Senate Education Committee passed the revised bill 7-0.

Higher ed finance study advances

The House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a proposed study of how to finance the state’s college and universities, which now rely much more heavily on tuition than they do on tax support. The panel would include eight legislators, four representatives from the departments of education and higher education, and a large cast – 34 – of institutional representatives, students and business people. Total membership would be 46.

Sponsor Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, defended the size of the group, saying representation from every institution is important. The committee amended the bill to slightly reduce the size of the body.

The bill passed 9-3 but now goes into hibernation for a while. Because it proposes a study, it must be approved by the Legislative Council, a group of legislative leaders. Those decisions usually are made near the end of a session.

The committee also voted 9-2 for House Bill 11-1069, which would allow college police to share information about potential threats and threatening individuals with deans’ offices, campus threat assessment teams and other administrators.

In other action

The House gave 64-0 final approval to House Bill 11-1155, designed to allow Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia to also serve as director of the Department of Higher Education.

Two education bills originally on Wednesday committee calendars didn’t come up after all. House Bill 11-1048, which would allow tax credits for private school tuition, was taken off the House Finance Committee’s calendar. House Bill 11-1089, the bill to give charter schools greater autonomy in seeking some state and federal grants, was transferred from the Senate State Affairs Committee to the Senate Education Committee.

House Bill 11-1115, which would change certain financial arrangements for public construction projects, was passed by the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee but now goes to Senate Finance.

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.