Who Is In Charge

First steps toward changing Ritz's role expected Thursday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz at November's Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

Republican lawmakers frustrated with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz will get their first chance on Thursday to discuss a bill that would effectively remove her as the leader of the Indiana State Board of Education.

The House Education Committee will take up House Bill 1609, authored by Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, which makes good on Gov. Mike Pence’s promise last month to seek a change in state law that would allow the state board to elect a replacement for Ritz as its chair. State law currently dictates that the state superintendent, who is elected statewide, will chair the board. Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office in Indiana.

In a speech announcing his legislative agenda last month, Pence pitched a trade of sorts: he pledged to shut down the Center for Education and Career Innovation and said in return Ritz should give up her guarantee of being chairwoman.

While Ritz complained frequently that CECI undermined her work, describing it as effectively a shadow education department, being chairwoman is one of the few tools she has to affect decision making by the 11-member state board, which was appointed entirely by Republican governors. At Pence’s order, CECI is closing down by next month.

Ritz and her supporters have not been enthusiastic about what she would have give up if state law were changed.

Ritz and her fellow board members have frequently been at odds over procedures, as Ritz has occasionally used her role as chairwoman to block votes or prioritize the agenda as she preferred it. While she has argued that managing the board meeting is part of her job, other board members have countered that the chairwoman role should be more ceremonial. The board has taken several steps over the past year to limit Ritz’s ability to make decisions about what is placed on the agenda or when votes are taken.

Republicans have responded with several bills that would change the duties of the state superintendent or the role of the state board. A total of eight bills have been filed that would change the state board in one way or another.

In the Senate, Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has assigned three such bills to the rules committee, where he said he would shepherd them. Long, who is Senate president, has endorsed the general approach of Senate Bill 1. It also would select the chair of the state board by a vote of its members, but Long said he is open to adding in other ideas for changing how the state board operates.

The House Education Committee meets at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday in Room 156-C at the Statehouse.

In other action on education bills today, the full House passed three bills, sending them to the Senate where they will be considered in March:

  • Transfers for school employees. House Bill 1056 requires school districts that have space to permit the children of their employees who live outside the school district to transfer into the district’s schools. The bill applies even to districts that have policies against transfers. In addition, the bill says district must accept transfers for children who attend private schools within their boundaries but live in a different school district, again if they have space available. It passed the House 95-0.
  • Teacher mentors. House Bill 1188, authored by Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, would prevent teachers from serving as mentors to student teachers unless they are rated effective by their school districts. It passed 97-0.
  • Adult charter high schools. House bill 1438 is primarily aimed at giving adult charter high school networks, like Goodwill’s Excel Centers or Christel House’s Dropout Recovery Schools, the ability to manage funds collectively rather than separate dollars into different accounts for each school. Other charter school networks were given that flexibility by the legislature last year. The bill passed 95-0.

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.