Who Is In Charge

Literacy, ASSET vie for attention

Revisions to the early childhood literacy bill, expected to be offered in committee Wednesday, would give more flexibility to school districts in carrying out the program, and the amendments also include $16 million in funding.

Legislature 2012 logoThe hearing on House Bill 12-1238 is in the Senate Affairs Committee at 1:30 p.m. – the same time at which the House Finance Committee convenes to take up Senate Bill 12-015, the undocumented students tuition bill.

The overlapping hearings come as the pace of events is getting faster at the Capitol, given that lawmakers face a May 9 deadline to adjourn for the year.

Other big bills are also stacked up, including House Bill 12-1345, the 2012-13 school finance act. It passed the House Tuesday on a 63-1 final vote and now must make its way through the Senate.

Crucial hearing for literacy bill

The Colorado Early Literacy Act, House Bill 12-1238, has drawn a lot of attention since the idea surfaced last year, pushed by business and education reform groups and modeled on a Florida law.

The main lightning rod was a proposal to require holding back third graders who are significantly below grade level in reading. Faced with widespread criticism, mandatory retention never made it into the bill. But the bill has been subject to intense scrutiny by – and jockeying among – education interest groups since it was introduced Feb. 7.

The House Education Committee spent seven hours on the bill, and House floor debate lasted two hours.

As passed by the full House on March 21, the bill’s original “preference” for retention of struggling third graders was softened. (See this story for details on the bill’s provisions as it left the House.)

The measure faced an uncertain future in the Senate, given a skeptical Democratic leadership and lobbying from school district interests who saw the bill as too restrictive and underfunded. The bill was assigned not to the Senate Education Committee but to State Affairs, sometimes used as a “kill committee.”

But key Democratic senators – sponsor Mike Johnston of Denver, State Affairs chair Rollie Heath of Boulder, vice chair Bob Bacon of Fort Collins and other senators – have been working on amendments. House sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and staff from the governor’s office also were in on the talks.

Proposed amendments were circulated to lobbyists and interest group leaders at midday Tuesday. Key features of the proposed changes include:

• A focus on students with a “significant reading deficiency” (to be defined by the State Board of Education). The House version of the bill also covers students with “reading deficiencies,” defined as those reading below grade level but above the level of significant deficiency.

• Use of interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The House version of the bill included about $5 million in funding. Proposed changes in the bill’s legislative declaration specifically note the need for financial resources.

As in the House bill, additional funds, about $4 million, would be available for a grant program for districts who need help implementing the program.

• Easing of some of the more detailed requirements for parent consultation and notification contained in the House version.

• While the proposed amendments still have specific references to retention as an option for struggling readers, the language is somewhat softened compared to the House version. Superintendent review of retention decisions for third graders remains in the bill.

• Addition of specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school and tutoring, for K-3 students with reading problems.

The State Affairs hearing on the bill will be in the Old Supreme Court Chambers on the second floor of the Capitol.

At the same time the House Finance Committee will hear the ASSET tuition bill in room LSB-A of the Legislative Services Building, across the street from the Capitol at 200 E. 14th Ave. The measure passed out of the House Education Committee Monday night on a 7-6 vote (see story).

The measure, freighted as it is with arguments over illegal immigration, faces tough prospects in the Republican-controlled House. Some observers believe House Finance is where it will die this year.

Testing costs last stumbling block to budget deal?

The Joint Budget Committee Tuesday started – but didn’t finish – trying to reconcile House and Senate amendments to House Bill 12-1335, the 2012-13 state budget.

The main stumbling point appears to be restoration of $5.7 million that the JBC originally included in the budget for development of new state science and social studies tests. The Senate stripped that money and put it in the budget for state economic development efforts.

Committee members seem inclined to restore the testing funding but couldn’t agree Tuesday on other sources for the economic development budget. The six-member panel had to break off discussions because Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, had to leave at 4 p.m., reportedly for President Obama’s speech in Boulder. Chair Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, was not happy.

Houses send each other fresh bills

Both houses voted final passage for several bills Tuesday, including:

House

  • House Bill 12-1345 – School finance act (63-1)
  • House Bill 12-1306 – Reimbursement of school districts for mid-year enrollment increases (43-21)
  • House Bill 12-1069 – Creation of a three-day sales tax holiday in August for school supplies and clothing (44-20)
  • House Bill 12-1331 – Western State name change to Western State Colorado University (60-4)

Senate

  • Senate Bill 12-047 – Requiring skills tests, such as Accuplacer, for all students at least once during high school (34-0)
  • Senate Bill 12-164 – Regulation of for-profit colleges that award bachelors and graduate degrees and establishing consumer protections for students (25-8)

Lawmakers can’t help themselves

Sure, the session enters its 106th of 120 days Wednesday, and things are already getting a little nutty. But that doesn’t prevent lawmakers from introducing new measures. New this week are resolutions for proposed constitutional amendments on initiative petitions, use of lottery revenues for education and PERA transparency, plus a bill to allow resident tuition rates for some military dependents.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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.