Who Is In Charge

Testing the conventional wisdom

Will hard-nosed political assumptions be upended on Tuesday when the votes are counted on Proposition 103?

Election logoSen. Rollie Heath, father of the proposal to temporarily increase state tax rates to help fund education, thinks so. “I don’t have anybody now telling me we don’t have a chance,” the Boulder Democrat told Education News Colorado late last week.

Republican former legislator Victor Mitchell said he thinks Prop. 103 will lose, but he did use the phrase “cautiously optimistic” when saying making that prediction during an interview. Mitchell heads one opposition group, Save Colorado Jobs.

Veteran political observer Eric Sondermann said, “By every indication this thing should not be viable.” Sondermann is chairman of the Denver communications consulting firm SE2.

Reviewing the conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 goes something like this:

Voters won’t support a statewide tax increase in tough economic times.

Mitchell notes “low consumer and business confidence,” and opposition speakers have been stressing the economic argument during campaign appearances.

Last year voters around the state approved the vast majority of school district tax increases, despite an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent. The jobless rate is down to 8.3 percent now, but national consumer confidence is lower than it was last fall.

A tax increase can’t be passed without massive and visible business and political support.

Sondermann harks back to Referendum C, the 2005 ballot measure that modified the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to generate more state revenue but didn’t raise tax rates.

Ref. C proponents “had probably 20 times more money” than Heath, “they had a media drumbeat like this state hasn’t seen … they had a halfway decent economy … and they had a Republican governor providing a bipartisan veneer,” Sondermann noted. Then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C, which was placed on the ballot by the legislature and passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann
“None of those are present today; even the Democratic governor is not on board,” Sondermann noted.

There’s been much media chatter about Gov. John Hickenlooper’s refusal to take a stand of Prop. 103. He cites a 2010 campaign promise about not seeking or supporting a tax increase during his first year in office.

But Heath was happy with Hickenlooper’s recent announcement that he would veto any later effort to change the terms of Prop. 103 if it passes. (The proposal would change state law, not the constitution, so it could be legally changed by the legislature. Opponents have repeated raised that possibility on the campaign trail. The proposition’s language requires the additional funds raised the rate increase be devoted to public education, from preschool to universities. The legislature would decide how to split the money and couldn’t supplant existing education funding with the new money.)

And Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Hickenlooper’s No. 2 and the administration’s point man on education, repeatedly has made sympathetic noises about Prop. 103 but stopped short of an endorsement.

Part of the reason Heath hasn’t gained support from heavyweight business and political interests involves disagreement over the “big fix.”

That phrase refers to the conflicting constitutional provisions governing state and local spending, property tax limits and education funding that have left lawmakers with little room to maneuver in the current revenue squeeze.

A variety of civic, good government and business groups have been talking about a “big fix” but haven’t reached agreement on what it should look like and when it should be presented to voters.

Heath’s point, which he’s made repeatedly while campaigning, is that students and schools can’t wait after three years of significant education budget cuts. “While we are dealing with the big fix do we do nothing or do we do something? Give these kids a chance.” The Prop. 103 tax-rate hikes would be in effect for five years, enough time in Heath’s mind for interest groups to agree on the big fix.

Countering the conventional wisdom

Heath’s counter to the conventional wisdom comes from the impressions he’s gained stumping the state.

Barbara O'Brien, Rollie Heath
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (right) talks about Proposition 103 on Oct. 27. Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is at the left, and Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus at center.
“We’ve been very pleased with the momentum it’s gathering,” he said late last week at a news conference intended to drum up a little last-minute coverage of the largely grassroots campaign. He said he sees “a sense or urgency about education” funding needs as he talks to people around the state.

Because of that, he said, “I think you’re going to see very different voting patterns” than Democrats voting for Prop. 103 and Republicans voting against.

Among the lineup of supporters at the event was education reform advocate and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “Doing reform well costs money,” she said.

Heath likes to cite the high number of signatures gathered to get the proposition on the ballot (142,824, well above the 86,105 required) as evidence of under-the-radar support.

He’s also fond of mentioning endorsements from small-town school boards and newspapers.

Straws in the wind lacking

Part of the reason so many observers are relying on the conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 is that the low-profile campaign doesn’t have most of the guideposts that accompany bigger campaigns – polls, intensive media coverage and the constant pounding of TV ads.

“It has been hard to handicap,” Sondermann admits.

Campaigners on both sides of the issue say they haven’t commissioned or know of any polls.

EdNews did find a poll released Oct. 11 by Public Policy Polling Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., a Democratic-oriented polling firm whose news release said, “This poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization.”

The survey found 45 percent of respondents in favor of raising state tax rates for education, 47 opposed and 7 not sure. (Read news release.)

The poll surveyed 510 Colorado voters Aug. 4-7, more than two weeks before Prop. 103 was certified for the ballot. The survey was an automated telephone poll and asked 20 questions on a variety of issues from approval of Hickenlooper and Colorado’s two U.S. senators to “Do you think prostitution should be legal or illegal?” Only one question was asked about education taxes, and it was 15th on the list.

Supporters of Prop. 103 have been running TV ads on five network stations and some cable channels in the Denver market. Heath said the campaign is designed so that an individual viewer will see the ad 10-12 times.

Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Mitchell said opponents have been doing some radio ads. Part of the opposition campaign is a bit underground, being run by Compass Colorado, a new Republican-oriented effort run by Tyler Houlton, a former staffer for various Republican campaigns and officeholders.

Because of its particular non-profit status, Compass doesn’t have to report its spending to the Department of State.

Both supporters and opponents have done some automated telephone calls.

Total campaign spending as of Oct. 12 was just under $500,000, most of that by supporters. Campaign committees have to file a new report on Oct. 31.

For the most part, the campaigns have consisted of Heath, Mitchell and other speakers criss-crossing the state, talking to political and community groups, attending candidate forums and making the usual appearances on TV public affairs shows and before newspaper editorial boards.

There’s also been a modest level of online campaigning, with individual supporters and opponents airing their views on blogs on YouTube.

Will turnout matter?

Several observers think turnout could be key. As of Friday, 619,000 Colorado voters had turned in ballots, according to the Department of State.

Supporters think could turnout could reach a million and that might help them.

Sondermann takes an opposite view. “The huge variable here that that turnout is not only going to be sparse but it could be abysmal. That increases the possibility that something surprising could happen.”

He continued, “Higher turnout might not be Rollie’s ally here. … That’s supposition.” The key, Sondermann said, may be which counties have the highest turnouts.

A factor in turnout may be tax elections in local school districts. Forty bond and tax override proposals are on ballots in more than 30 districts around the state, totaling more than $560 million. (Prop. 103 would raise more than $500 in higher taxes every year.)

Heath acknowledged that some district officials were concerned that negative voter attitudes about Prop. 103 could hurt local proposals. Now, he said, “They understand if this doesn’t pass they’re going to be in the hole” financially.

A final thought

“If Rollie can get this thing passed, then all the conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window,” Sondermann said.

PROPOSITION 103

Provisions

  • 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

Resources

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”