Who Is In Charge

House OKs PERA benefits bill

The Colorado House Friday gave preliminary approval of House Bill 12-1150, which would change the method of calculating retirement benefits for state workers, teachers and others who join the Public Employees Retirement Association after Jan. 1, 2013.

Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.

The bill is the first of seven PERA-related bills to make it to the floor this session. Two others are pending in House committees, one has been killed in a House committee and three have died in the Senate.

Friday morning’s debate was a predictable partisan affair, with Republicans arguing that benefits need to be controlled to help ensure the system’s financial sustainability and Democrats maintaining the bill is unfair and also unnecessary because of a 2010 law that made pension reforms.

HB 12-1150 would set retirement benefits based on the average of an employee’s seven highest years of salary rather than the current average of the three highest years. Republicans argue that’s needed to prevent “spiking,” which can happen when employees jump to significantly higher salaries late in their careers.

As passed by committee, the bill would have applied to current PERA members who aren’t vested in the system – those with less than five years of service. That provision was removed by a floor amendment Friday, meaning the bill would apply only to future employees.

Current PERA law has different limits on spiking, something usually not mentioned by GOP supporters of HB 12-1150. The bill could reduce benefits for new employees by 6-11 percent compared to current law, acording to some estimates.

Some statehouse observers believe the bill was sparked by a few isolated examples, such as former Gov. Bill Ritter’s jump to a $300,000 salary at a Colorado State University energy institute from his $90,000 pay as governor.

A legislative staff analysis estimates the bill would reduce PERA’s accrued current liability by less than $1 million but doesn’t project into the future what the savings would be (read the fiscal note). Because the bill only would apply to new employees, it’s actual savings presumably wouldn’t be felt for decades, when those people begin to retire.

Debate rages for an hour

Here’s a sampling of some key points and quotes from the floor debate:

PERA’s long-term sustainability: Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, compared PERA to the Titanic, saying, “PERA is going to run into an iceberg and it’s going to sink” unless changes are made.

The value of the 2010 law: “We are on a path to sustainability,” said Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins.

Punishing state employees: “This is just a slap in the face to state employees,” said Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “State employees have been used as a scapegoat.”

Protecting the public: “it’s also about justice for the taxpayers of Colorado. … “They’re expected to pick up the tab” if PERA has to be bailed out in the future, countered Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield.

Spiking: The bill “punishes the normal person to get at a few people,” argued Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville.

The debate had moments of the factual confusion that often crops up in PERA debates. Sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, meant PERA when he said in 1999 “they made benefits more generous.” System benefits are set by the legislature, not PERA’s board.

Republicans hold a 33-32 majority in the House so will need all those votes to give final approval to the bill. If it passes the House it’s not expected to survive the Democratic controlled Senate.

Despite the bipartisan majorities that passed Senate Bill 10-001, PERA has smoldered since then as a partisan issue, fanned by some legislative Republicans who believe the system is financially unsustainable and needs to be changed. GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton also is a leading PERA critic.

PERA bills have drawn wide attention this year, with retirees packing committee hearings and bombarding lawmakers with thousands of emails.

For the record

The Senate Friday gave final 35-0 approval to House Bill 12-1090, which would require the annual Oct. 1 enrollment count date be moved if it conflicts with a religious holiday. The measure now goes to the governor.

The House voted preliminary approval of House Bill 12-1146, which would continue a dropout recovery program under which community colleges can offer high school classes to certain students.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.