Who Is In Charge

Another bite for teacher paychecks?

Many Colorado teachers, already facing pay cuts next year because of various district budget-reduction tactics, could see additional losses in take-home pay under a bill amended and passed by the House Finance Committee Wednesday afternoon.

But they would get the money back years in the future in the form of pensions from the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

As amended on a 7-6 Republican-Democratic vote, Senate Bill 11-076 would give school boards and local governments the option of reducing their contributions to employee pensions by as much as 2 percent while increasing payroll deductions for employees by a like percentage.

The committee passed the amended bill on an 8-5 vote, with Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, joining GOP members in support.

As passed by the Senate, the bill proposed only to reduce the amount that the state and colleges contribute to employee pensions and to raise employee contributions. The net effect would be to make it somewhat easier for the legislature to balance the 2011-12 budget by freeing up about $34 million in the general fund. (Some $15 million of savings would be in higher education, and governing boards would get to keep that money.)

Worker take-home pay would be reduced, even though civil servants would get the money back later in retirement, or if they cash out of the PERA system early.

The bill proposes a 2.5 percent switch, the same as applied in the current 2010-11 budget year to state employees and many higher education workers. The Joint Budget Committee proposed renewing the contribution swap for another year because of the state’s continuing revenue shortfall.
A paycheck
While the committee’s action will not be welcomed by public employees, teachers and local government workers, it’s not the last word on the matter. The pension contribution question is caught up in the larger issues of balancing the 2011-12 state budget and softening expected cuts to K-12 education. All of that is still in play, and the ultimate solutions will require compromise between the Republican-majority House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The amendment approved by the committee Wednesday is pretty much identical to a stand-alone Republican measure, Senate Bill 11-074, which was killed Feb. 14 in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Also still in play is the size of the cut to state and higher education employees, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget suggests that the state and colleges reduce their contributions by a total of 4.5 percent, with employees seeing that additional percentage taken from their checks.

House Finance Chair Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, Wednesday proposed an amendment to do just that, although he said he hadn’t consulted with the administration. That proposal died on a 6-7 vote, with freshman Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, joining all committee Democrats in opposition.

Another complication is the potential impact of contribution swaps on the health of PERA. Eligible employees who leave the system before retirement can withdraw their contributions (along with a 50 percent match and interest). But employer contributions remain in PERA, helping its solvency. When contribution swaps put more employee money into PERA that potentially means more money can be taken out of the system than would be otherwise.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimate the original form of the bill will increase the unfunded liability of PERA’s state division by $6.6 million.

The committee spent nearly three hours on SB 11-076, hearing lengthy testimony from state employees who opposed the bill and related stories of hardship caused by wage freezes and furloughs in recent years.

There was just the faintest whiff of different partisan attitudes about public employee pay and pensions, but the discussion overall was extremely civil and sympathetic, in contrast to the superheated partisan debates taking place in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Things did tense up a bit when DelGrosso proposed his amendments, which had been distributed to members only a few hours earlier. Several committee Democrats complained that the issues should be left to the JBC and that the potential impacts on PERA needed more discussion.

Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan and sponsor of the bill, opposed the two amendments on the JBC’s behalf. (He did say that personally, as a rural legislator, he kind of liked the idea of giving small districts a chance to reduce pension costs.)

Just before the final vote on the bill, DelGrosso said, “Everybody was very respectful today. … I thank everybody for that.”

“Kill committee” does its work

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 3-2 to kill House Bill 11-1007, which would have allowed Mesa State College classified employees to hold an election on whether to opt out of the state personnel system. If the election supported opting out, individual employees could have chosen to remain with the state system or become exempt employees under the college’s own personnel procedures.

Some Mesa employees felt they would have better chances for raises under the college system, but other workers have opposed it because they fear loss of state system protections.

Committee chair Sen. Rollie Health, D-Boulder, made it clear where he stood well before the vote. “My problem, and what I conveyed to President [Tim] Foster, is that you’re not out there alone. You’re part of a broader system. … I happen to believe we just can’t pick and choose.”

Foster is a well-known advocate of independence for individual state colleges and also has been critical of greater regulatory control of higher education by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

The state affairs committees in each house are where majority leadership traditionally sends bill to die.

Info sharing, charter bonding bills advance

The Senate Education Committee passed two bills Wednesday morning.

House Bill 11-1169 would allow campus police to share more information about possible threats with deans, threat assessment teams and other administrators. The vote was 7-1, with Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, the only no vote. A handful of conservative Republicans are concerned the bill could be a threat to free expression, such as voicing of unpopular political views.

Senate Bill 11-188 would create new procedures for handling troubled charter schools that have facilities debts under a state bonding program. The measure is designed to avoid defaults. An earlier version of the bill was killed, and SB 11-188 was introduced as a bipartisan solution. It passed the committee 7-0.

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.