Who Is In Charge

Campaigns gear up for school tax votes

Fundraisers already are hard at work corralling contributors for the campaigns supporting proposed tax increases in key Colorado school districts.

As usual, the largest contributions have come from banks, financial firms and construction companies who do business with school districts underwriting bonds and building schools.

Most of the activity ahead of a late-July reporting deadline was in the Cherry Creek and Jefferson County districts. Money also has been raised by a committee that supports an Aurora tax increase, even though the school board hasn’t yet placed the plan on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The St. Vrain Valley and Greeley/Evans districts have put tax increases on the ballot, but those campaign committees registered on or after the July deadline so they haven’t had to file reports with the secretary of state’s office. The next reporting deadline isn’t until Oct. 16.

The Denver and Douglas County boards haven’t decided on ballot proposals. A Denver campaign committee registered with the secretary of state last month but hasn’t had to file a report.

A review of the secretary of state’s database found no opposition committees yet registered in any district. Here’s a look at campaign financial activity in major districts so far:

Jefferson County

Citizens for Jeffco Schools, a registered committee since 2008, reported cash on hand of $25,949.

Tax request types

  • Bond issue – Typically used for school construction and renovation, it includes additional revenue to pay off the bonds issued to finance the projects.
  • Mill levy override – A specific tax increase used for operating expenses.

The committee started the year with $3,968 and has raised $49,665.

Large contributors include Robert W. Baird & Co. of Milwaukee, Wisc., the district’s investment banker ($20,000) and FirstBank Holding Co. of Lakewood ($15,000).

The campaign also has received more than 180 smaller individual contributions, including $400 from Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and $250 from board president Leslie Dahlkemper.

The committee has spent $27,684 this year, most of it with Public Opinion Strategies of Golden and with the Denver campaign firm MIDG Group.

In addition, the committee also spent $15,000 with Public Opinion Strategies in July 2011 to survey voter attitudes about a potential tax election.

Cherry Creek

Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools, in existence since 2005, reported $66,920 on hand. It started the year with a balance of $3,556, raised $68,376 and spent $5,012 with campaign firm MIDG Group.

Major contributors include Haselden Construction of Centennial ($5,000), M.A. Mayer Construction of Centennial ($5,000) and Shaffer Baucom Engineering of Lakewood ($2,500).

The committee also received $2,500 from FASB Fitness Festival of Greenwood Village, a non-profit that runs the First American State Bank Fitness Festival. According to the group’s website, Cherry Creek Superintendent Mary Chesley is honorary chair.

The group has received more than 70 small contributions from individuals and businesses. Among the donors were Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial ($50), and former Superintendent Monte Moses ($200).

Aurora

Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools, which registered on June 26, reported contributions of $11,500 and no spending through the July 26 reporting deadline.

All of the income came from two construction companies – Adolphson & Peterson of Aurora ($10,000) and JHL Constructors of Centennial ($1,500).

Construction companies, architects and engineers are traditional contributors to district campaign committees, although Aurora this year is considering a tax override for operating expenses, not a bond issue.

Looking ahead, looking back

In addition to Greeley, 14 other districts around the state are seeking or are expected to seek voter approval of bond issues in order to match state grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program.

In the metro area, Sheridan is asking for voters for a $6.5 million bond issue. A campaign committee, Best for Sheridan Students Committee, registered in late July and hasn’t yet had to report contributions.

In smaller districts, campaign committees often aren’t formed as supporters rely on word of mouth to advocate for bond issues and operating increases. In small districts with committees, contributions often total only a few hundred dollars.

Last November’s election was sobering for Colorado school districts. Of the 43 bond issues and operating increases proposed by 36 districts, only 11 were approved. Six of those that passed were for BEST matches, but six other BEST bond proposals were rejected. (Get details in this story.)

Douglas County was the only large metro-area district to go to the ballot last year, and voters resoundingly defeated a bond issue and a mill levy override.

Proposals and campaigns

State law bars school districts from conducting campaigns or spending tax money to advocate, so campaigns typically are handled by separate citizen political committees.

→ ON THE BALLOT

  • Cherry Creek – The district is seeking a $125 million bond issue and a $25 million operating tax increase, also known as a mill levy override. The district says that would cost owners of “average” homes an additional $8 a month in property taxes. Campaign organization: Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools
  • Greeley – The district has proposed an $8.2 million bond issue to match a state grant for replacing a middle school. The district is an alternate for the state grant, so other districts will have to lose bond elections in order for Greeley to move up on the list. Campaign organization: Committee to Support Education Greeley/Evans
  • Jefferson County – Voters are being asked to approve a $99 million bond issue and a $39 million operating increase. The campaign estimates property taxes will rise $1.43 a month per $100,000 of home value. Campaign organization: Citizens for Jeffco Schools
  • St. Vrain – The school board has approved asking voters for a $14.8 million operating increase. The increase would amount to an estimated $4.16 a month per $100,000 of a home’s market value. Campaign organization: Yes on 3A

→ IN THE WINGS?

  • Aurora – The district is studying a $15 million operating increase, which would mean a $5 per month tax increase on $100,000 home. The school board will discuss the issue again on Aug. 21. Campaign organization: Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools
  • Denver – Under consideration are a $457 million bond issue and a $49 million operating increase. Campaign organization: Together for Denver Schools
  • Douglas County – The school board voted on July 26 to reserve a spot on the Nov. 6 ballot but hasn’t revealed what it might propose. Past campaign organization: Douglas County Citizens for Education Reform. The committee is listed as “active” by the secretary of state but has had no fundraising activity since last year.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: