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


election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools