No go on limits

Bid to cap school board campaign contributions fails; bill requiring more transparency advances

A bill that would have limited contributions in school board campaigns suffered a crushing defeat late Monday in a House committee.

But a second measure that would require more frequent financial disclosures in board races passed on unanimous vote of the House State Affairs Committee.

The original version of House Bill 16-1140 would have capped individual contributions to candidates at $500 and also limited contribution by committees.

The measure was introduced in response to last fall’s high spending in Denver school board and other district races. For example, incumbent Happy Haynes raised more than $120,000, including large individual contributions such as $5,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Robert Speth, who raised about half as much and narrowly lost to Haynes, testified in favor of the bill. Big contributions are “really warping the outcome of these races,” he said.

“The amount of money is our school board races is obscene,” said prime sponsor Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver.

But Democrats and Republicans alike on the committee were skeptical about the bill’s potential impact, arguing that contribution limits would just drive more spending by independent expenditure and other outside committees unconnected to candidates.

“Money will simply be transferred and be less transparent,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.

Outside spending in board races already has exploded and was a big factor in some district races last fall.

The bill died on an 8-1 vote, with only Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, supporting it.

School board contribution limits never have been a popular idea at the Capitol. The Colorado Education Association and its affiliates, heavy contributors through small donor committees, always have opposed limits. Republicans are leery of limits in general.

A similar bill was introduced in 2010 in response to heavy DPS contributions the year before. It was defeated on the House floor.

In contrast to the contributions limits bill, the committee voted 9-0 to pass House Bill 16-1282, which would require more frequent reporting of contributions to and spending by school board candidates. It will be heard next in the House Appropriations Committee.

Board elections are held in odd-numbered years. But due to an anomaly in state law, candidates and committees don’t have to file disclosures as frequently as candidates who run for other offices in even-numbered years.

For example, in even-numbered years, most campaign committees must file reports every two weeks between the beginning of September and the general election in November.

But in odd-numbered years, most committees must file only a single report in mid-October and then not report again until the following January. So updated committee contributions and spending aren’t available to the public during the height of the campaign season.

The bill would require candidates and committees to file on the more frequent schedule, although elections would remain in odd-numbered years. A ballot measure proposed by the conservative Independence Institute for the November election would move board elections to even-numbered years. That initiative has to be reviewed by state officials before petitions can be circulated.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.