Who Is In Charge

Drive to boost school funding underway

Colorado citizens this fall could get their second chance in three years to vote on new funding for the state’s schools and colleges.

Sen. Rollie Heath and four advocacy groups announced Monday they’re pushing ahead with a campaign to put the funding boost on the November ballot. If passed, the change would raise an additional $3 billion for schools over five years.

Calling the effort “a grassroots campaign to stop the maddening cuts to our schools,” Heath, a Boulder Democrat, said, “Doing nothing is not an option. We want to give voters a chance to invest in schools.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was flanked by 4th-graders from Wildcat Mountain Elementary in Douglas County as he launched his school-funding ballot measure campaign May 16.

The campaign is named Support Our Schools for a Bright Colorado.

The plan would raise state personal and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent from the current 4.63 percent. The state portion of sales taxes would go from 2.9 to 3 percent.

The additional revenue could be used only for public schools and the state’s higher ed system and couldn’t be used to supplant existing funding. The measure sets 2011-12 spending for schools and colleges as a floor. Lawmakers would decide how the additional funding would be allocated among school districts and state colleges and universities. Ballot measure text.

The higher rates, which are the same as those in place before the legislature reduced them in 1999, would be in effect from 2012 to 2017.

Heath stressed that “this is not a permanent fix” but is intended to give education a funding respite while various groups work on a more comprehensive fix for the conflicting fiscal provisions in the state constitution.

Heath, a businessman and one-time candidate for governor, first raised the idea in February, shortly after Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed cutting K-12 spending for next year by $332 million. The cut subsequently got whittled to about $228 million.

Since then, Heath has been testing the waters, getting ballot language approved and has started to circulate petitions. He said Monday the campaign has raised about $100,000 from business-related donors and has 1,100 petitions circulating.

The organizations backing the initiative are Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for increased School Funding; the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group that drafted tax initiatives earlier this year but decided not to push them; The Arc of Colorado, an advocacy and service organization for the developmentally disabled, and New Era Colorado, a Boulder-based group that works to involve young people in politics and civic affairs.

Nuanced reaction to proposal

Absent from Monday’s news conference at the Capitol were representatives of the state’s mainline education groups.

Asked about that, Heath said, “I think you will see some but not all of those people” supporting the effort later.

In a statement issued after the news conference, the Colorado Education Association said, “CEA greatly appreciates the work Sen. Heath is doing to address the dire funding situation in Colorado public education. Schools, families and students need more friends like Rollie Heath, who is always focused on providing our children with the rich, well-rounded education they deserve.”

Melissa Tingley, president of the CEA-affiliated Boulder Valley Education Association, said that group is actively supporting the measure and members will circulate petitions.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said his group hasn’t taken a formal position but “not because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said that group’s board hasn’t yet discussed Heath’s initiative.

A wide variety of education, business and civic groups have been discussing possible solutions to the state’s fiscal challenges. But consensus hasn’t been reached on what a solution should look like, or on what year would be best to take a measure to voters.

Heath said the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce “is standing on the sidelines” and not supporting or opposing the measure.

Democrat Hickenlooper has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe voters have “any appetite” for a tax increase this year. The Regional Transportation District board recently decided not to ask metro-area voters for a FasTracks sales tax increase this November.

Republican officeholders, of course, are opposed to a tax increase in any year. Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, issued a statement saying, “This Democrat proposal to raise taxes will only hinder economic recovery and put added financial stress on already struggling families.”

Past funding efforts

Since passage of Amendment 23 in 2000, there have been additional discussions and attempts to improve school funding through ballot measures. Amendment 23 was designed to create a predictable and ever-increasing funding stream for schools, but its effects have been diminished by the economic downtown and a reinterpretation of its provisions by the legislature.

In 2008, then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff got a measure on the ballot called the Savings Account for Education. It didn’t have strong backing from education groups, which were focused on defeating other ballot measures, and was defeated by voters. Background story.

Last year, Great Education pushed the legislature to put a plan on the ballot that would have exempted education spending from the limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. That idea didn’t get out of the General Assembly. Background story.

Asked about Romanoff’s plan, Heath said 2011 “is a very different year” without the distractions of other ballot measures, congressional races and a presidential contest.

To get the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, Support Our Schools will need to gather 86,105 valid signatures of registered voters by Aug. 1. Political experts estimate 100,000 signatures is a good target to account for those that might be thrown out as invalid.

The secretary of state’s office said Monday that if the Support Our Schools plan gains sufficient signatures, it will be the only citizen initiative on the statewide ballot this year.

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.