Who Is In Charge

Higher ed funding boost defeated

Rep. Ray Scott was realistic about the prospects for his higher education funding bill, but he told the House State Affairs Committee that he wanted to start “a conversation” about energy jobs and about college support.

Colorado college campus montage
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Scott’s House Bill 13-1122 would have created a two-year tax holiday for new oil and gas wells. After that holiday ended, revenue from those wells – an estimated $76 million a year – would have gone to the College Opportunity Fund, one of the accounts used to fund state colleges and universities.

“I’m under no illusions why I’m sitting here in this committee,” said Scott, referring to the fact that State Affairs is considered the “kill committee” for bills that House majority leadership doesn’t like. Not only was the bill sponsored by a minority Republican, but it would have taken energy-impact funds away from city and county governments, a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol.

After half an hour of discussion the committee’s Democratic majority met Scott’s assumption and killed the bill on a 7-4 vote.

Daily roundup

Scott, a Republican businessman from Grand Junction, had told the committee that he wanted to start a conversation about both creating more jobs in the energy industry and about higher education funding. “All of us understand higher education is going to have some funding shortages in the future.” He also joked that instead of being known as the “kill committee,” State Affairs should be known as the “idea committee” and a place to discuss concepts “that are not ready for prime time.” (Get more details about the bill in this legislative staff memo.)

Other college funding measures

State policymakers have been having a conversation about higher education’s funding woes for a long time, and this isn’t the first time that mineral and energy revenues have been discussed as a source for college funding.

And while Scott’s bill is off the table, other efforts to scrape together more cash for the state’s colleges and universities remain alive at the Capitol.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed a $30 million increase in state support of higher education for 2013-14. Current-year spending is about $513 million, plus $100 million for financial aid. Hickenlooper has suggested a $5 million increase for scholarships.

The legislative Joint Budget Committee, through Senate Bill 13-090, is proposing a $9.3 million mid-year boost for colleges. Several colleges lobbied that committee for the increase. The bill passed the House Monday and is on its way to the governor.

Chart of Colorado higher education funding
This Joint Budget Committee chart shows trends in and sources of Colorado higher education funding in recent years. <em>Click to enlarge</em>

A Democratic bill to impose a permanent sales tax on cigarettes was amended – as the suggestion of Republicans – so that the additional revenues would flow to the College Opportunity Fund. That would raise an estimated $26.5 million in 2013-14. House Bill 13-1144 passed the House last week and is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

Republicans like Scott aren’t the only ones who have eyed energy revenues as a funding source for higher education. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter was a leading proponent of an unsuccessful 2008 ballot measure that would have increased mineral severance taxes to raise more than $320 million a year for college scholarships.

The Degree Dividend, a 2010 state report on the future of the higher education system, calculated that annual state support of $1.5 billion was needed to make the state system competitive with those in other states.

The report mentioned several possible tax increases that could be used to reach that level, including a 1 percent tax surcharge on mineral extraction that would raise $150 million a year.

Two more union bills bite the dust

The State Affairs Committee’s long afternoon of killing Republican-sponsored bills also included two measures that would have affected union membership and rights.

House Bill 13-1106, a “right to work” measure, would have banned employers from requiring employee membership in unions or the payment of union dues or any fees in lieu of dues.

House Bill 13-1107 would have prohibited collective bargaining by public employee groups, including teachers unions in local districts.

The committee action brings to five the total of such bills that have been defeated this session.

Unions, of course, are a political dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. Labor organizations, including the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are significant contributors to Democratic campaigns. Business groups that often back Republicans argue that right-to-work and similar laws foster economic development by attracting new businesses.

Related bills already killed in the Senate include Senate Bill 13-017, which would have allowed employees to join or resign from unions at any time; Senate Bill 13-024, a right-to-work measure, and Senate Bill 13-141, a variation of Senate Bill 13-017.

Senate Bill 13-168, yet another variation of the opt in/opt out idea, is pending in the Senate State Affairs Committee, the Senate’s “kill committee.”

Extracurricular bills move to the Senate

The full House Monday gave final approval to two measures primarily related to high school athletics.

House Bill 13-1047 would give school districts control over assignment of out-of-district students who want to participate in extracurricular activities – primarily athletics – that aren’t available in the students’ home districts.

House Bill 13-1095 would forbid districts from requiring home-schooled students to take classes as a condition for participating in some extracurricular activities, again such as athletics. Students could be required to take classes in cases where a class is formally tied to an activity, such as band.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.