Who Is In Charge

Turnaround bill delayed for more work

A bill that proposes changes in how districts handle turnaround schools drew lots of interest in the Senate Education Committee but was pulled off the table Thursday at the sponsor’s request.

Andrea Merida
DPS board member Andrea Merida testified in favor of a turnaround schools bill on Feb. 24, 2011. Sponsor Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is behind her.

Witnesses supporting the bill included critics of the Denver Public Schools’ reform plans in Far Northeast Denver and the Colorado Education Association. Opponents included officials of the Department of Education and leaders of education reform groups. The 14 witnesses were equally divided pro and con.

Senate Bill 11-080 sponsor Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, seemed a bit uncomfortable about her bill being tied to the long-running DPS controversy. After testimony had ended, she told her fellow committee members, “I don’t want this bill to be about Denver Public Schools or the Far Northeast neighborhood.”

Later, she told Education News Colorado, “I don’t want to make this about Montbello High School.” A split DPS board last year approved a massive restructuring of schools in the Montbello attendance area; see this story for background.

The bill would require a school board to conduct a public meeting before adopting a turnaround plan and also require that a summary of the meeting along with any recommendations by the school accountability committee be submitted to the Department of Education along with the board’s turnaround plan.

The bill also would add two options to the list of strategies used for turnaround schools – clustering of schools in a geographic area and use of various research-based strategies, such as teacher professional development. (Bill text and legislative staff summary.)

DPS board member Andrea Merida testified for the bill, repeatedly referring to the Montbello area controversy. She said, “This bill will allow a voice for parents.” If the bill had been in effect two years ago, she argued, “We could have had a much more collaborative process” and DPS would have been “compelled to have” genuine stakeholder input.

Merida has been a persistent critic of reform initiatives by DPS administration and the current board majority. District administration is on record opposing the bill, according to a Jan. 20 filing with the secretary of state by lobbyist Tanya Kelly-Bowry.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver (file photo)

Committee member Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, politely disagreed with Merida’s view of the Montbello controversy, saying, “Even though we may have disagreed on the outcome, Landri and others made sure it [public comment] was very, very robust.”

Johnston, one of the legislature’s leading education reform proponents, was referring to Landri Taylor, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and longtime northeast Denver activist. Taylor testified against the bill.

“You’re saying the current system works and you’re part of it?” asked committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

“Yes,” Taylor replied.

Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of education, conveyed to the committee the State Board of Education’s formal opposition to the bill. “We are not supportive of additional requirements on districts at a time when we are trying to reduce requirements.” Wenning added that the bill isn’t necessary, saying, “The options in this bill are already permitted by law.”

Representatives of Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and Colorado Succeeds also opposed the bill.

After the nearly two hours of testimony ended, Hudak asked Bacon to take the bill off the table so she could “work with the stakeholders to try to come up with a better plan than this first draft.” He quickly agreed.

The bill has an interesting set of cosponsors, including Bacon and committee member Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County. Other Senate cosponsors include Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs; Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo and sponsor of the undocumented students tuition bill; Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver and a former DPS board member; and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and a former education committee member.

While not signed on to the bill, committee member Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, seemed sympathetic Thursday. “I don’t see why this is such a big deal,” he said of the state board’s objections to the bill.

The only House sponsors are Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora and a retired teacher, and freshman Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs. The measure has no Republicans signed on.

Another pending measure, House Bill 11-1126, also would require districts to formally notify parents of a school’s turnaround designation and hold public hearings. Provisions requiring districts to adopt parent involvement policies were stripped from the bill, which now merely “encourages” districts to do that.

The amended bill received final House floor approval earlier this week. Its sponsors are freshman Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a former union official, and Hudak.

A hard week

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster (file photo)

Hudak has had a tough few days promoting her bills.

After SB 11-080 was heard, she presented Senate Bill 11-070 to the committee. The latter measure proposed that the comprehensive services that developmentally disabled high school students receive through individual education plans be carried into college.

There’s been resistance to the bill from higher education, and Hudak acknowledged Thursday that it may conflict with federal law.

She offered an amendment that dramatically changes the bill, removing its requirements and merely adding higher education representatives to the existing state Special Education Advisory Committee and assigning that committee to study issues related to disabled college students.

On Wednesday, Hudak’s Senate Bill 11-069 also got turned into a study assignment for yet another panel, the Charter School and Charter Authorizer Standards Review Committee. The bill originally proposed that CDE regulate educational management organizations, the companies and non-profits often used to manage charter schools.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.