Who Is In Charge

Prop. 103 panel mixes it up

Two advocates of “polar extremes” and two guys somewhat in the middle provided a lively discussion of Proposition 103 Friday for an audience at the University of Colorado Denver.

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

The leading backer and a top opponent made fairly familiar arguments while two other participants provided some interesting handicapping about the ballot measure’s prospects.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder and author of the ballot measure, gave his vigorous standard pitch about why he feels the five-year hike in state income and sales taxes is needed to provide additional funding for education at all levels.

“The sole purpose of this is to stop the bleeding,” said Heath, noting significant recent reductions for both K-12 schools and state colleges.

Penn Pfiffner, a former legislator who’s with the Independence Institute and chairs the opposition group Too Taxing for Colorado, argued that there’s no guarantee the additional revenue would go to education. “There’s only an intention” to do that. “There’s no accountability, no reporting,” he said.

Pfiffner touched on some other opposition critiques – it’s unwise to raise taxes in a bad economy and that spending doesn’t guarantee improved student achievement – but repeatedly returned to the argument that the increased revenue won’t necessarily go to schools.

Heath countered, “This money has got to go to education,” citing the provision of the proposal that reads: “All revenues raised by the increase in taxes … shall be appropriated by the General Assembly only for the costs of public education preschool through twelfth grade and public post-secondary education.”

Todd Snidow and Penn Pfiffner
Todd Snidow (left) and Penn Pfiffner

Pfiffner said, “This entire discussion presumes … there is no way we can cut anything.” Brandishing a copy of the Independence Institute’s “Citizens Budget,” he added, “There are alternatives to raising fees and taxes.” (Vouchers and tax credits are the cornerstones of that document’s suggestions for education funding.)

Eric Sondermann, a veteran political and communications consultant, told the crowd, “I feel like Admiral Stockdale,” referring to 1993 third-party vice presidential candidate James Stockdale, who famously said at a debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Then casting himself as “the hard bitten political analyst,” Sondermann said he disagreed with Pfiffner’s overall distaste for taxes but, “My question is one of timing.”

“The conventional wisdom is this is not the right time to do this,” he said, noting the weak economy and the lack of the well-funded business and political support behind Proposition 103. In contrast, he cited the example of Referendum C, the successful 2005 ballot measure that changed some provisions of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and increased state revenues.

Sondermann also said, “There’s no bipartisan cover this time,” recalling that Republican then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C. Current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has declined to take a public position on Proposition 103.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann

“The consequences of failure are high,” Sondermann warned, predicting that there will be little appetite for future school-funding proposals if Proposition 103 gets only about 40 percent of the vote. He did say, “you’ve promoted a discussion” for later if support for the measure is in the high 40s.

The last school funding measure on the statewide ballot, 2008’s Amendment 59, gained 45.7 percent of the vote.

Heath’s response to Sondermann was, “If I believed in the conventional wisdom, I wouldn’t be here.”

The fourth panelist, Todd Snidow, was the one who described Heath and Pfiffner as “polar extremes.” Snidow is senior vice president of George K. Baum & Co., a financial firm that advises school districts on bond issues and tax hikes.

Snidow is more in Heath’s camp – “It’s not a pretty picture” was his description of Colorado school funding. But he did say that among school districts seeking local tax increases this year, “There is some concern about ballot fatigue and ballot confusion.”

He said districts are being careful to avoid linking their proposals to Proposition 103. He also said the fact that the statewide tax hike would last for only five years “could be a game changer” for voters. (See this Education News Colorado story about this year’s local ballot proposals.)

The hour-long session was sponsored by the Buechner Institute of Governance at UCD’s School of Public Affairs. Todd Ely, a Buechner staffer, quizzed the panelists, followed by audience questions. The event, which attracted about 100 people, was sponsored by Snidow’s firm.

Pfiffner seemed to feel he was in unfriendly territory, saying at one point, “There are a lot people in this room whose living comes from the state” and referring to “a roomful of professors” at another. “I hope some of you will hear today … and not just say it’s all that conservative stuff,” he told the audience.



  • State income tax rate would rise to 5 percent from 4.63 percent
  • State sales tax rate would go to 3 percent from 2.9 percent
  • New rates are same as those in effect in 1999
  • Higher rates would end in 2017

Revenue use

  • Proposition would raise an estimated $3 billion over five years
  • Additional revenue could be spent only on preschool programs, K-12 schools and state colleges and universities
  • Legislature would decide how to split revenues
  • Spending would have to be in addition to levels of 2011-12


Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.