Who Is In Charge

Results cause for celebration in Jeffco, more

Updated 1:30 p.m. Wednesday

The first Jefferson County election results came in at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday, and the party room at Chad’s restaurant in Lakewood erupted in cheers.

Tina Gurdikian, left, and Shawna Fritzler, supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures, danced at an election watch party at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Photo / Joe Mahoney

By 7:30 p.m., happy supporters of Jeffco Public Schools’ ballot measures 3A and 3B had thrown all caution to the wind. Some were Tebowing in the middle of the party room, where they had gathered to watch election returns. Others were dancing like ponies, “Mitt Romney Style,” as popularized in a video parody of “Gangnam Style” making the YouTube rounds.

Lesley Dahlkemper, president of the Jeffco school board, had stationed herself by the door of the room and was hugging everyone who walked in.

“It was a good team. It was a great team,” she said. “Whew, I can breathe again.”

Colorado voters Tuesday were overwhelmingly in support of proposed school district tax increases, passing 35 such proposals, according to a review of unofficial results by the Colorado School Finance Project and Education News Colorado.

The 38 proposals on this year’s ballots totaled about $1.03 billion; the total approved was about $1.009 billion.

Here’s a rundown:

Six regular bond issues were passed and only one was defeated, in the Gilcrest district of Weld County.

Fifteen property tax overrides to fund district operations passed. One proposal, in the Cheyenne RE-2 district on the eastern plains, apparently was defeated.

Thirteen bond issues intended to raise matching money for the state Building Excellent Schools Today program passed. Only one, in the West End district of Montrose County, was defeated.

In Aspen voters approved a sales-tax increase proposed by the city but which will funnel revenue to the school district. So, 34 property tax measures and one sales tax hike were approved around the state.

Passage of Jeffco’s tax measures marks the first time voters have said yes to more money for the state’s largest school district since 2004.

Jeffco’s campaign co-chair Jonna Levine, whose Election Day began with waving signs in support of the $99 million bond issue and $39 million operating tax to 7 a.m. commuters at Kipling and Alameda, said she started feeling confident when she saw all the senior citizens waving and honking.

Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, left, laughed with supporters at an election watch party Tuesday night at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Photo / Joe Mahoney

“That made us feel optimistic,” she said.

An exuberant Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, tears streaming down her face, said “It’s really good and it’s really BIG.”

Moments before, Stevenson had announced her intention to try her best not to cry, whatever the result. “We’re just holding our breath,” she said.

As latecomers arrived at the crowded election watch party, they were greeted with the news: “We’ve won!”

Colorado voters have a long history of passing most school tax proposals but the record has been mixed in recent years because of the dismal economy. Half of the state’s school measures failed in 2008, as the Great Recession began, including Jeffco’s requests for a $350 million bond issue and a $34 million operating increase.

In 2011, more than 30 school districts sought tax hikes but voters approved only $73 million of the more than $560 million proposed – or just 13 percent of the dollars sought.

But the economy has been tough on districts too, with reduced or flat state funding.

This year’s proposals for operating increases total about $150.7 million. Most of those districts say they need to increase operating revenues to at least partly offset the state budget cuts of recent years.

The total of the 2012 proposed bond issues is about $877.5 million, including nearly $100 million in requests from the districts that need to raise matching money to win state Building Excellent School Today grants.

Backers of district ballot measures hoped voters, buoyed by the slowly recovering economy, would be more likely to say yes. And, preliminary returns show, most of them did.

Jeffco’s ballot battle

Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures argued that question 3A, the $39 million increase in operating taxes, would help forestall $45 million in expected budget cuts.

Lesley Dahlkemper, president of Jeffco’s school board, led the district’s push for passage of $138 million in operating and bond dollars. She’s shown in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo from February.

They said the added revenue would maintain class sizes, protect elementary music programs and library staffing, and buy back two teacher furlough days due to shorten the 2013-14 school year.

Question 3B, the bond issue, will provide 141 of the district’s 154 schools with updated fire alarms, roof repairs, sidewalk repairs, electrical upgrades and other capital improvements.

Together, both issues will raise taxes on a $250,000 home by an estimated $36.70 per year – roughly a dime a day, an amount community leaders deemed was fair, even though it doesn’t quite cover the estimated budget shortfall.

But opponents – which included one school board member, Laura Boggs – countered the school district wasn’t entirely transparent about either its funding options or where the increased tax money would go.

Supporters of Jeffco’s ballot measures watched returns at Chad’s Grill in Lakewood. Returns showed both measures passing, the first tax increases to pass for the district since 2004. Photo / Joe Mahoney

They said the district would not have to mandate employee furlough days or threaten increased class sizes if it were willing to ask employees to fund a greater share of their pension payments to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA.

“They insist they have no choice, but they do,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, an education reform non-profit, and Jeffco Students First Action, the group’s political advocacy arm. Atwell, a former financial planner from Evergreen, has taken the lead in opposing the ballot items.

“Looking at a billion dollar budget, there are other places to cut rather than threatening parents with bigger class sizes … The real cost drivers are things like the compensation package, which includes retirement and the underfunded nature of PERA.”

Supporters of the ballot measures had raised $149,504 as of the most recent campaign filing deadline on Nov. 2. Opponents reported raising $5,145.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, Atwell was ready to accept defeat and move on. There was no formal gathering of the issue’s opponents, and Atwell said most were at various candidate parties.

“We were outspent, and that made it tough,” she said, adding that she wasn’t too surprised by the outcome. “It’s hard for folks who challenge the status quo. But we did the best we could with the resources we had. We will keeping challenging the status quo, speaking up for students instead of employees. We will continue to monitor how those additional funds are spent.”

Other districts on the ballot:

Cherry Creek School District

Voters in the southeast suburban district faced two questions – a $25 million operating tax increase, or question 3A, and a $125 million bond issue, or question 3B.

District officials said the operating increase will be used to maintain class sizes, support curriculum and instruction, and enhance use of technology. Bond issue proceeds are to be used for STEM classrooms, renovations and additions around the districts, new technology, and safety and security.

It’s estimated the two proposals would cost the owner of an “average” home in the district an additional $8 a month in property taxes.

Early returns showed both ballot measures passing but district spokeswoman Tustin Amole was cautious.

“We think we’re okay, but we don’t know for sure,” she said. “I do know all precincts are partially counted. We are optimistic but won’t call it until the county does. But we like what we see so far.”

9News declared the ballot measures victorious in this story.

More information: Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools supporters’ website, District summary of proposal, District list of bond projects.

Aurora Public Schools

The district proposed measure 3C, a $15 million operating tax increase that Aurora officials say will be used to partly offset more than $70 million in state budget cuts over the last three years.

The money will be used for reading, writing, math, science and early childhood programs; classroom materials and technology; and maintaining staff.

District leaders estimate approval of the ballot measure would cost district homeowners an additional $5.71 a month or $68.52 per year for every $100,000 of home value.

The measure was headed for approval at midnight, after maintaining a comfortable lead throughout the evening.

More information: Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools supporters’ website, District summary of proposal.

St. Vrain Valley School District

The district sought a $14.8 million operating tax increase to maintain staff compensation and to support technology and early childhood programs. The school board had considered a $16.8 million increase but decided to ask for a lower amount in light of economic conditions.

It’s estimated passage of measure 3A would increase taxes $4.16 a month per $100,000 of actual home value.

The ballot question maintained a strong lead throughout the evening and appeared to be headed to victory. Wednesday, the Longmont Times-Call declared a win for the ballot measure in this story.

Greeley-Evans School District

Voters were asked to vote on an $8.2 million bond issue to provide 28 percent of the cost of replacing 50-year-old John Evans School. The state’s Building Excellent Schools Today program would provide the rest of the funds for the project. Greeley is an alternate for BEST funding, so a finalist would have to lose its bond election to free up money for the district, which would have to pass its bond to remain eligible.

Returns showed the district winning its request for more bond dollars, with 59 percent of voters reporting in favor and 41 percent against. District leaders celebrated victory, thanking voters in this Greeley Tribune story.

Sheridan School District

A Sheridan High School cheerleaders high-fives an elementary student at a district rally to celebrate gains on state tests. Sheridan was one of 33 school districts asking voters for more money this year; voters said yes in most cases.
The district was making its second try in two years for a bond issue to match a state BEST grant. This year, Sheridan proposed a $6.5 million bond to earn a state grant of $23 million. This year’s plan would replace an early childhood center, renovate a middle school and demolish an older elementary school building.

With early returns showing the measure heading for victory, Superintendent Michael Clough was in an upbeat mood.

“Sheridan has not built a school since 1972. So this is an exciting day for the Sheridan community,” he said. “Building a 3-5 connected to a 6-8 with common areas in the middle … also additional preschool classrooms … we have not had nearly enough spaces or slots for our preschool population. This will be huge educationally for us in so many ways.

Sheridan officials declared victory for the ballot measure before 9:30 p.m. See the press release.

Pueblo County

The district, which serves county areas outside the city of Pueblo, sought a $59.9 million bond for safety and security projects, replacement of modular units and other work.

District 70 voters rejected a $35 million bond and a $3.4 million operating increase last year, prompting leaders to redraft their bond proposal for this year.

Initial results showed a close margin of approval for the bond issue, with 53 percent of voters in favor and 47 percent against. As midnight neared, that had widened to a 55 percent lead and the Pueblo Chieftain Wednesday reported successful passage of the measure in this story.

More information: District summary of proposal.

Aspen

A .35 percent city sales-tax increase will provide an estimated $1.75 million for the school district.

The Aspen Times declared victory for the measure before midnight, according to this story.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.