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.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: