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.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.