Here we go again

Casino backers say they’ve got the signatures to advance school funding measure

Supporters of a proposed ballot measure to expand casino gambling announced Monday they’ve gathered well more than the required number of signatures to put the plan on the Nov. 4 ballot. A percentage of the projected gaming revenues would go to K-12 education.

“Today is a significant milestone for our citizens committee and the thousands of supporters we have across the state,” said former state Sen. Bob Hagedorn, an Aurora Democrat who is one of the initiative’s backers. The signatures still have to be reviewed by the Department of State.

The plan that is currently labeled Initiative 135 would allow creation of casino-style gaming at the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the metro area and at tracks in Pueblo and Mesa counties in the future.

The committee behind the plan calls itself Coloradans for Better Schools, and the group’s website promises the initiative “will provide more than $100 million in new funds every year to enhance K-12 education in our state – without costing taxpayers a dime.” The money would go into a new account called the K-12 Education Fund.

The state-approved ballot title for the measure estimates $114.5 million in net gaming revenues. Money in the fund would be distributed directly to school districts on a per-pupil basis by the state treasurer. That distribution would bypass the existing school finance system, and the amendment’s language says it’s supposed to be “in addition” to current school funding.

The Prop 135 split
  • Assuming $100 million in tax revenue, the per-pupil amount would be $114, based on current state enrollment of 876,999
  • Denver, the largest district, would receive $9.8 million. Current per-pupil funding is $7,398
  • Agate, the smallest district, would get $1,368. Current per-pupil funding is $14,883
  • Current basic K-12 funding – $5.93 billion
  • Current funding shortfall – $900 million
  • Search your district’s current funding in the Chalkbeat Colorado database

The amendment says the new money would be for “addressing local needs,” including reducing class sizes, acquiring technology, enhancing safety and security and improving facilities.

The text of the amendment doesn’t specify dollar amounts. Rather, it require that 34 percent of adjusted gross proceeds from casinos be distributed to schools. Casinos created by the amendment would be allowed to have up to 2,500 slot machines, plus card games, craps and roulette. They could be open 24 hours a day, if the communities where they’re located agree.

No education advocacy groups currently support the measure. The Colorado Education Association isn’t taking a position, and the Colorado Association of School Executives won’t consider the issue until September but won’t necessarily take a position. The Colorado Association of School Boards also won’t look at the proposal until a September meeting. Some members of that group already are using opposition. Such groups in the past have been reluctant to support such “sin taxes” because of their perceived unreliability as revenue sources.

Get ready for lots of TV ads

The Better Schools group already raised $2.1 million in campaign funds, much of it in-kind contributions from Mile High USA Inc., the company that owns the Arapahoe Park racetrack and that is a subsidiary of Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino. The committee has spent $1.6 million since it registered with the Department of State in March.

The proposal already has sparked fierce opposition from mountain casino interests, whose spending helped defeat a similar measure in 2003. A committee named Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos, also formed in March, has raised $9.1 million, most of it from mountain casino interests, including Isle of Capri Casinos and Ameristar Casino.

Not the first time around the track

This year’s plan isn’t a brand-new idea.

In 2003, racing interests pushed Initiative 33, which would have required creation of gambling facilities with “video lottery terminals” at racetracks. Such terminals are basically slot machines. Tax revenues would have been devoted to tourism promotion and outdoor recreation projects. Mountain casino interests fought the measure, the two sides spent a combined $11.5 million and voters killed the idea, with more than 80 percent voting no.

In 2012 racing interests took their idea to the legislature with House Bill 12-1280, which was based on the controversial legal theory that since the gaming machines at three locations would be overseen by the Colorado Lottery Commission and would be classified as “lottery terminals,” no voter-approved constitutional change was necessary. (The constitution currently limits full casinos to the three historic mining towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, which are overseen by the Colorado Limited Gaming Commission. Two Native American casinos in southwestern Colorado aren’t subject to state jurisdiction.)

That 2012 plan would have funneled tax revenues to community colleges and higher education scholarships, with a bit of money for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. A slimmed-down version of the bill was killed in a House committee on the last day of the 2012 session.

State law requires 86,105 valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot. Initiative proponents typically gather significantly more signatures that required in order to compensate for signatures that are thrown out. For instance, last year backers of Amendment 66, the K-12 tax increase, collected 165,710 signatures, but only 89,820 were ruled valid. The Department of State has 30 days to review petitions after they’re filed.

If sufficient Proposition 135 signatures are verified, it will be assigned a different, permanent number for the ballot.

Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.