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Tempered good news on K-12 funding

Updated 4 p.m. – Improved state revenue forecasts have provided a nice present for Colorado school districts, but the gift isn’t as large as some might hope.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Henry Sobanet
Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and budget director Henry Sobanet

State budget chief Henry Sobanet told legislators Tuesday morning that the brightened revenue outlook would allow giving schools an extra $22 million this year for enrollment increases and eliminate the need for an $89 million cut in 2012-13, something Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed in his original budget for next year.

“Today is a good day to talk about the budget … the economy is improving,” Hickenlooper told reporters later in the day. “First and most critically,” he said, the additional revenue allowed the administration to roll back proposed K-12 cuts.

But holding school total program funding steady at about $5.2 billion effectively would be a cut, because statewide enrollment is expected to increase 1.2 percent in 2012-13, meaning average per-pupil funding would drop by about $70 a student. Under the governor’s original plan for 2012-13, the average per-pupil cut would have been $179. Actual per-student funding varies widely by district under the state’s school finance system.

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Gov. Hickenlooper’s comments on state revenues, education spending and Colorado’s economy.

And funding would be about $1 billion below the full amount called for by the previous interpretation of Amendment 23, the school-funding provision of the state constitution. In recent years, the legislature has used a “negative factor” to reduce projected school funding to a predetermined amount necessary to balance the state budget.

One proposed cut the administration is not planning to fully restore is what’s called the senior homestead property tax exemption. Hickenlooper is proposing the current suspension of that $100 million program continue in 2012-13 but that $17.5 million be budgeted to help low-income seniors.

House Republican leaders have said they’ll fight to restore the $100 million. Doing so could force K-12 cuts in exchange.

Forecasts seen as good news

Still the forecasts were greeted as welcome developments.

“Thanks for the good news,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, after legislative and executive branch economists finished their presentations.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, told EdNews the forecast means, “We’re going to push very hard” to reduce K-12 cuts in 2012-13. Massey, chair of the House Education Committee, led efforts to minimize school cuts in the current budget and is expected to be a central figure on education issues during the 2012 session.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “This is good news for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the governor’s willingness to retract the $89 million is good news.” Still, noting the precariousness of school funding, Urschel said, “We’re just living fiscal year to fiscal year, and that’s no way to fund schools.”

“Our students and schools so desperately needed a good-news day, and this is good news,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

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In addition to discussing state revenues, both documents contain extensive information about Colorado economic and business trends.

Sobanet told legislators at the morning hearing that state revenues for the current 2011-12 year are projected to be $231 million higher than was predicted in September. Natalie Mullis, legislative chief economist, said her office estimates revenues will be $148 million more than projected in her last quarterly forecast. Both projected state revenue growth will slow in the immediate future.

“Obviously, this change is most welcome,” said Sobanet, who’s director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“The economy has definitely stabilized,” Mullis said. But she and executive branch economists warned that economic instability in Europe could cloud Colorado and U.S. economic prospects in the future.

The forecasts mean lawmakers will have a modestly larger amount to spend in 2012-13 than previously thought.

Sobanet said the administration would recommend the following steps related to education:

  • Allocation of an additional $22 million in the current 2011-12 budget year to help districts cover the costs of increased enrollment.
  • Transfer of an additional $110 million to the chronically underfunded State Education Fund, which is used to supplement school spending.
  • Keeping total program funding, the combination of state and local money that funds basic school operations, near the current level of about $5.2 billion. Hickenlooper had proposed cutting $89 million.

Sobanet also said higher revenues mean it will be possible to avoid a $30 million cut in the state’s $100 million student financial aid program. An additional $30 million cut in direct support of colleges and universities remains in the governor’s plan.

The legislature, of course, will have the final say on the 2012-13 budget. But if lawmakers take the administration’s suggestions, it would be the first time in several years that school districts would get a mid-year adjustment for enrollment increases and that base school funding remained stable.

The two forecasts also touched on other issues and trends of interest to education, including:

  • Local property taxes: School districts will see a 1.5 percent increase in property tax revenues, slightly reducing the pressure on the state to backfill local revenues.
  • Enrollment: Full-time equivalent enrollment will grow 1.2 percent in 2012-13 to nearly 795,000. Most of the growth will come in Front Range districts; many other areas of the state will see continued declines. The forecast from legislative staff contains a detailed analysis of where enrollment will grow and where it will fall.
  • Gaming revenues: Community colleges are expected to receive $6.1 million this year from their share of gambling revenue and $6.2 million in 2012-13.

The recent Denver District Court ruling in the Lobato v. State school funding case was referenced briefly during the hearing.

Sobanet said, “The governor is in consultation with the attorney general about the appropriate path forward. The most likely outcome is the state will appeal the district court ruling.”

Estimates of “full” K-12 funding under the Lobato ruling range from $2 to $4 billion more a year than the $5.2 billion currently spent.

Asked about the issue at his news conference, Hickenlooper said, “We’re just working out the details” and that an announcement on the appeal will come “hopefully in the near future.”

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.