Who Is In Charge

JBC goes with $30M boost for colleges

The legislative Joint Budget Committee Wednesday recommended an increase of about $30 million in state support of public colleges and universities, basically ratifying the proposal first made last November by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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

But panel members left the door open to possibly increasing that amount if the March 18 state economic forecasts show a jump in state revenues.

“I was hoping we could do more for higher education,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “I was prepared to move that we add additional money” for state colleges and universities. But Levy added, “I’ll just wait” to see what the March revenue forecasts show.

The JBC is working its way through the long process known as “figure-setting,” during which the six committee members set 2013-14 spending for all state agencies. Those decisions then are rolled into the annual state budget bill, expected to be introduced toward the end of March.

It’s an open question whether the revenue forecasts will show there’s enough money to add to higher education spending. And there will be competition for extra money from other state programs.

The $30 million increase would be on top of the $513 million state colleges and universities are receiving in the current 2012-13 budget year. State funding provides only about a quarter of total higher education spending of just over $3 billion – the majority of revenue comes from tuition. The $30 million would provide only a 2.8 percent increase on a per-student basis.

The budget proposal also includes a $5.3 million addition to the current state financial aid pot of about $100 million.

Earlier this year, the JBC proposed – and the full legislature approved – a “bonus” of $9.3 million for colleges in the current budget year. Because of that, the net increase for next year is about $21 million.

The JBC also adjusted the staff recommendation to account for the expected $2.3 million increase in tuition revenue and a $900,000 projected cost for undocumented students entering college under the ASSET proposal, Senate Bill 13-033. Those costs were a major focus of House floor debate on that bill Tuesday (see story).

As has been the case in recent years, higher education figure-setting prompted committee member grousing about the future of higher education support.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, warned about the “defunding of higher education” and complained, as she often does, about the value of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “It would be fun to see what happens” if the commission were eliminated, she said.

Gerou and Levy also opposed a Department of Higher Education request for two new data-analysis employees. “I don’t really want to see this department grow too much,” said Levy, who is a reliable supporter of University of Colorado Boulder interests.

But the two were outvoted, and the committee agreed to the two new positions.

Higher education has taken significant budget hits in recent years as the legislature balanced the state budget in years of declining state revenue. According to data in the JBC staff recommendations, direct state support of colleges dropped 25 percent from 2008-09 to 2012-13. Calculated on support per resident student, state funding dropped 3 percent.

Overall average per-student spending has increased – but only because of tuition increases.

Trigger/school grades bill dies

The House Education Committee on Wednesday finished what it started on Monday and killed House Bill 13-1172, the Republican-sponsored measure that would have created a modest parent-trigger process for failing schools and also converted the state school rating system to an A-F structure.

The panel devoted two hours of testimony and discussion to the measure on Monday but delayed a vote because one member was sick. As expected, the committee’s seven-member Democratic majority killed the bill at the end of a 10-minute meeting and after listening to a final comment from prime sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. (See story about Monday hearing.)

“I really appreciate the fact that it received a fair hearing in the committee it was supposed to be in,” said Priola. He was referring to the fact that the bill originally was assigned to the House State Affairs Committee, which is used to kill bills regardless of their subject matter.

Some committee Democrats expressed polite support for the bill’s broad goal of empowering parents, and Republicans made arguments for the bill’s detailed provisions.

“I think it’s high time that we give a clear signal to parents on whether their schools are failing or succeeding,” said Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, who’s the senior Republican on the committee. She was referring to the bill’s proposal to replace the state’s somewhat bureaucratic labels for district and school quality levels with A-F grades.

California has a working parent trigger law, and several states use A-F labeling systems. Neither idea has gained much traction in Colorado and both have been opposed by mainline education interest groups and most legislative Democrats while receiving modest or no support from reform groups.

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 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.