Who Is In Charge

Enrollment study will be a sprint

A new state study of how to count K-12 students formally got going Wednesday – only about six weeks before the effort is supposed to produce a report.

And discussion at the first meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee highlighted fears that changing the way the state counts students will cost school districts money and create more work for them.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

The author of the legislation that spurred the study sought to calm those fears. “Our belief was [changing the count method] leaves the same amount of money in the system,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, with “less amount of work.”

Witnesses and panel members also sparred a bit over whether the current system makes it too easy for schools to let problem students drop out of school after enrollment is counted every October.

The long lead-up to Wednesday’s meeting is an interesting case study in the pitfalls of legislating in a time of state budget cuts.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 and awarding state aid to districts based on those counts. (The actual system is rather more complicated. There is a “window” around Oct. 1 in which students can be counted, and there’s extensive checking and adjustment of counts submitted by districts.)

In the summer of 2009 a legislative committee proposed a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies students based on average enrollment in districts over a school year. What educators call “ADM” is not to be confused with average daily attendance, a method that compiles enrollment figures from actual attendance stats.

The 2010 legislature took up the study panel’s suggestion, added the 17-member advisory committee and passed Senate Bill 10-008, which was signed into law more than months ago, on April 21.

So why didn’t the committee meet before Wednesday?

SB 10-008 forbid the use of tax dollars to fund the study, instead saying the project couldn’t start until the Department of Education raised sufficient “gifts, grants and donations” to fund the effort. Given the state budget crunch in recent years, using gifts and grants has become a favorite tactic for legislators who want to pass pet bills, especially relating to education.

CDE didn’t put together sufficient grants until near the end of October, according to Vody Herrmann, department school finance chief. A total of $45,000 was raised from the Donnell-Kay Foundation ($20,000), the Carson Foundation ($12,500) and the Daniels Fund ($12,500).

With the money in hand, the department put out a bid request and hired Denver-based education research and consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to do the study. Justin Silverstein of APA, Mark Fermanich of the University of Colorado-Denver and Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project are working on the study.

Those three outlined the project Wednesday to members of the committee, which is scheduled to meet only two more times before the report is finished.

Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts that need it most. Some advocates, like the Colorado Children’s Campaign, also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school and will therefore lower dropout rates. The campaign has made reducing dropout rates a major initiative and on Wednesday issued a new report on the subject.

School districts worry that use of ADM could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, and they resent implications that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count.

Those conflicting views flared at Wednesday’s meeting.

Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, told the panel any switch in counting methods should be done carefully, and “the idea that our school districts don’t have the right incentives [to retain students] is offensive to me.”

Scott Groginsky, lobbying for the Children’s Campaign, replied that “we’re not” impugning the integrity of school districts but “We’re hearing this does happen … There are attempts to have kids leave school after the Oct. 1 count.”

Renee Howell, a Littleton school board member, raised financial concerns about a change in count methods, saying, “We’ve just gone through three years of massive cuts. … There’s a limit to how much people can do. … There’s reality and there’s what we’d like to build. Please be respectful of the reality.” (Fermanich said most districts gather ADM information now but acknowledged that creating and running a new audit and verification system could be difficult.)

Johnston tried to smooth things over, saying there’s no intent to decrease overall school funding by changing the count method. But he cautioned, “There is, of course, the possibility of redistribution. … We want these dollars to go where the kids are.”

Fermanich had stressed that point earlier, saying, “There may be shifts between districts. Some districts will be winners, and some will be losers.”

The advisory committee next meets on Dec. 15. The consultants said they plan to have the report finished by Jan. 14. The law authorizing the study contains a Dec. 15 deadline, but Johnston said he’d written to legislative leadership explaining why the document will be a month late.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.