Who Is In Charge

Turnaround election for school districts

Election 2012 LogoTuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado school districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

The 38 proposals on this year’s ballots totaled about $1.03 billion; the total approved was about $1.01 billion.

Only two small districts, Cheyenne Re-5 on the eastern plains and West End near the Utah border, were shut out. In West End, 75 percent of voters were in the no column. Meanwhile, voters in the Gilcrest district of Weld County rejected a bond issue but approved an operating increase.

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By the numbers

  • 31 districts proposed ballot measures, including Aspen
  • 38 measures total were proposed – some districts sought both bond issues and operating tax increases

Ballot breakdown

  • 7 measures were traditional bonds – 6 passed
  • 14 measures were local matches for state construction dollars or BEST bonds – 13 passed
  • 16 measures were operating increases – 15 passed
  • 1 sales tax, in Aspen – 1 passed
  • Total measures passed – 35

Rejected measures

  • 1 regular bond was rejected – in Gilcrest, which passed an operating increase
  • 1 local match for a state construction grant, also known as a BEST bond, was rejected
  • 1 operating increase was rejected – in Cheyenne Re-5
  • Voters in only 2 of 31 districts rejected all measures before them

Final tally

  • Dollar value of all proposals – $1.03 billion
  • Dollar value of all proposals approved – $1.009 billion
  • Bonds approved – $766.8 million, including BEST bonds approved – $90.5 million
  • Operating measures approved – $150.7 million
  • Sales taxes approved – $1.75 million

Of the 35 total proposals that passed, 15 were approved with yes votes of 60 percent or more. The biggest margin was in Telluride, where 86 percent of voters supported an operating increase. Proposals in two districts, Bayfield and Plateau Valley, squeaked by with 51 percent yes to 49 percent no.

The results represented a dramatic turnaround from the 2011 election, one of the worst in recent memory for schools. Voters approved only $73 million of the more than $560 million in bonds and operating increases proposed in 2011.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said she feels the slowly improving economy was “a pretty big reason” for what happened on Tuesday. “Last year, we were closer to the crash,” she said. “People have had a year to look at some recovery.”

Urschel also speculated that voters “maybe paid attention to the cuts their districts had to impose” in recent years and were supportive of the need to restore some funding. Most districts are planning to use operating increases to restore budget cuts or avoid future ones.

She said most districts were very careful this year to get community input on the proposals, noting, “They were guided by their communities from the outset.” Urschel also said voters in districts that sought bonds to match state construction funds may have been attracted by the prospect of leveraging their local tax dollars.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, praised the re-election of President Obama and also said, “The president’s priorities were echoed across Colorado in dozens of local elections in which voters soundly rejected calls to accept low levels of education funding, and instead made the choice to restore investment to an outstanding, yet financially-drained public school system.”

The bulk of the $1.01 billion is accounted for by the total $664 million requested by Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s two largest school districts. Both districts requested bond issues and operating revenue increases.

Cherry Creek district voters also approved a bond issue and an operating increase.

“We are very grateful that the community recognized the need to provide resources to continue our mission of excellence for all students,” board President Jennifer Churchfield said. “As we have in the past, we will keep our promise to provide the best educational opportunities for the children in this district.”

(See this story for election night reaction to the DPS vote, and this one for comments on the votes in Jefferson County and other larger districts.)

Who passed what

Support for district tax measures spanned the state and was seen in districts both large and small.

Districts that passed both bond issues and operating increases

  • Bayfield – $11.9 million bond, $1.2 million operating
  • Buena Vista – $4.4 million to match state construction funds, $900,000 operating
  • Cherry Creek – $125 million bond, $25 million operating
  • Denver – $466 million bond, $49 million operating
  • Fort Lupton – $11.7 million bond ($5.1 million to match a state grant), $1.4 million operating
  • Jefferson – $99 million bond, $39 million operating

Voters in Gilcrest narrowly defeated a $9.9 million bond but approved a $1.8 million operating increase.

Other bond issues that passed

  • Alamosa – $4.9 million
  • Pueblo 70 – $59.9 million

Other operating increases that passed

  • Aurora – $15 million
  • Briggsdale – $195,000
  • Del Norte – $832,600
  • Mancos – $276,000
  • Plateau Valley – $350,000
  • Stratton – $119,200
  • Telluride – $800,000
  • St. Vrain – $14.8 million

The Cheyenne County District Re-5 lost a proposed $200,000 operating increase with more than 60 percent voting no.

Others passing bond issues to match state grants

The state’s competitive Building Excellent Schools Today program provides grants to districts for school construction and renovation, but in most cases local matches are required. These districts raised their matches.

  • Dolores – $3.5 million
  • Elbert 200 – $2.9 million
  • Genoa-Hugo – $6.6 million
  • Greeley – $8.2 million
  • Hi Plains – $2.8 million
  • Lake County – $11.4 million
  • Montezuma-Cortez – $21 million
  • Otis – $2.8 million
  • Platte Valley – $5.7 million
  • Salida – $9.6 million bond
  • Sheridan – $6.5 million

Greeley and Salida were chosen as alternate BEST winners in case any finalists lost their bond elections and forfeited their state grants. Denver actually is an alternate as well – a small part of its bond issue is a match for a state grant to renovate South High School.

The state Capital Construction Assistance Board is scheduled to meet Monday to decide how to handle the alternates, given that West End has forfeited its $12.5 million state grant by failing to pass its $9.4 million match.

And one successful sales tax increase

Aspen voters approved a city sales tax increase that will generate about $1.75 million a year to the Aspen school district.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.