Who Is In Charge

Bleak prospects for future K-12 support

There was no good news about the future of state support for K-12 schools at the Joint Budget Committee’s Friday briefing on the Department of Education’s 2011-12 budget.

Committee staff analyst Carolyn Kampman told the panel and several other lawmakers who sat in that she recommends no increase for schools next year, and she also said lawmakers will need to adjust school finance law if they want to avoid a large mandated increase in schools spending starting in 2012-13.

Staff and committee discussion also indicated that some specialized education programs, specifically the Colorado Counselor Corps and the ASCENT fifth-year program for high school students, might be in the budget crosshairs during the 2011 legislative session.

The budget committee every December receives staff briefings on the proposed budgets for individual state departments in the upcoming budget year, which starts next July 1. It was CDE’s turn Friday.

Current “total program funding” for school operations is $5.4 million, down from about $5.6 million in 2009-10. The state is paying $3.4 billion of this year’s total. The executive branch has proposed a $91 million increase for 2011-12, an amount that won’t cover the costs of enrollment growth and inflation and which falls about $365 million short of what the traditional Amendment 23 funding formula would require.

The 2010 legislature passed a bill that allowed school funding to be reduced in 2010-11, using what’s called the “budget stabilization factor,” and that applies to the upcoming 2011-12 budget as well.

Because that factor currently is set to expire for the 2012-13 budget, “We have a big cliff coming,” Kampman told lawmakers. Returning to use of the previous funding system would require more than $700 million in additional state spending in 2012-13, according to the committee briefing document on CDE spending.

“Over the next five fiscal years, the General Fund appropriation would need to increase by more than one billion dollars,” the document continued.

Kampman suggested that the 2011 legislature consider extending the stabilization factor for one more year to avoid the $700 million cliff and that the 2012 legislature study more lasting changes. “For the longer term, staff recommends that the General Assembly consider making permanent changes to the school finance formula,” the briefing document says. (See pages 24-25 of the document for details.)

Next year might not be the best time to attempt permanent change, Kampman said, noting that there will be a new governor, many new legislators and that lawmakers have to deal with congressional redistricting. She also said the Lobato v. State lawsuit, which challenges the adequacy of state school funding, is scheduled to go to trial in August 2011. (Later in the day, the JBC got a closed-door briefing from the attorney general’s office about Lobato.)

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen

Committee Vice Chair Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, noted, “2011-12 may seem like a walk in the park compared to what the next year will be like.”

Kampman also suggested that legislators be cautious about using the financially stressed State Education Fund, which is used to supplement general state school support and to fund some special programs.

Bernie Gallagher, another analyst who works on education spending, and Kampman also analyzed two special programs in their briefing paper.

The Colorado Counselor Corps is a $5 million program that’s in its final year of funding, although CDE has requested continuation of the effort. JBC staff last year recommended not funding the program, but lawmakers disregarded that advice. Gallagher said, “It’s difficult to determine if this program has had an impact.” (See pages 56-59 of the briefing paper for more details.)

The ASCENT program, created by the 2010 legislature, is a “fifth year” concurrent high school-college enrollment program. The current program had a projected participation of about 237 students at a cost of less than $2 million, but CDE projects it will balloon to 2,481 students and cost of $15.4 million next year. (See pages 33-40.) Kampman suggested capping enrollment at a much lower level.

On other matters, Kampman and Gallagher recommended that the legislature consider clarifying state law on the conversion of private schools to charter schools and on the use of contract schools.

A key function of JBC briefings is for members to raise questions they’d like a particular department to answer at a subsequent budget hearing. Committee members Friday racked up a long list, giving CDE staffers plenty to do before the department’s hearing at 1:30 p.m. next Friday, at which CDE executives will discuss those issues with the committee.

Among the issues raised Friday were queries about the cost of CSAP tests, the tab for expanding tests to include social studies, enrollment shift patterns between districts, spending on full-day kindergarten and preschool programs, the success of the Closing the Achievement Gap program, the health of the State Education Fund, charter school conversions, contract schools and the BEST school construction program.

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.