Who Is In Charge

Without funding, ELL bill dies

Updated 9:30 a.m., May 3 – The Senate Appropriations Committee this morning voted 6-1 to kill House Bill 13-1211, which proposed to upgrade programs for English language learners.

Sponsors weren’t able to find funding for the bill’s $7 million cost. “This is something we need to do, [but] the truth of the matter is we just don’t have the $7 million,” said committee member Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The Senate Education Committee had voted 8-1 Thursday to approve the bill, which was designed to improve teaching of English language learners, even though committee members knew it faced long odds.

Colorado Capitol“There’s some great stuff in this bill, and there’s also a price tag that we’re still working on,” sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, told the committee during the Thursday afternoon hearing that was squeezed in between floor sessions.

HB 13-1211 would have updated standards for school district ELL programs and for reporting to the state on those programs, and it outlined how the Department of Education would oversee such programs. Current law allows districts to spend state ELL dollars on individual students for only two years. The bill would change that to five years.

Districts currently receive about $14.5 million a year in state funds this year plus $11.3 million in federal money. HB 13-1211 would cost an additional $7 million a year for additional CDE staffing and for additional professional development for teachers and for student support. Colorado has an estimated 110,000 ELL students, about 85 percent of who are Spanish speakers.

The bill had bipartisan sponsorship.

HB 13-1211 has been somewhat overshadowed by Senate Bill 13-213, the proposal to modernize the state’s school funding system. That bill contains substantial increases for ELL programs, but it wouldn’t go into effect until 2015-16 and also requires voter approval of a $1 billion income tax increase. (See this legislative staff summary for more details on HB 13-1211.)

GOP loses fight over extra higher ed funding

House members ate up about an hour Thursday evening throwing partisan stones at each other over House Bill 13-1144, a measure that extends a tax on cigarettes that was due to expire. When the House passed the bill way back on Feb. 4, it included a Republican amendment that earmarked the $28 million in revenue for higher education.

The Senate stripped that amendment before passing the bill on March 5. Ever since then the Democratic leadership has been holding the bill, with no intention of restoring the higher education amendment. (The Democrats felt it would be more prudent to spread the revenue among other programs.)

That hasn’t been a secret around the Capitol. But when the bill finally was brought up in the House Thursday for consideration of the Senate changes, Republican members made a big display about being betrayed.

“I want to know why no one told us,” complained Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “I never felt as played as I do now.”

“Bad, bad, bad. Bad, bad really bad,” scolded Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, pointed out that some of the complaining Republicans actually voted against the bill last February, but that just made GOP members madder.

Two Republican motions on the issue were defeated; the House voted to accept the Senate version of the bill and re-passed it on a 37-27 party-line vote.

Energy conservation bill flap defused

The House Thursday evening gave preliminary approval to a bill setting energy conservation standards for new school buildings after passing an amendment that apparently ends much of the controversy over the measure.

School districts had been fretful about the potential costs of such requirements. The amendment softens some of the original bill’s requirements for third-party verification of building projects and loosens some other mandates in the measure.

If the bill passes, as it now looks like it will, it will be a long-awaited victory for Sen. Andy Kerr, R-Lakewood. He sponsored several variations of the bill while serving in the House, but all were defeated. But the bill now is a fairly mild mandate. “I think this is as good as we’re going to get,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and a somewhat reluctant House prime sponsor.

No problems for BEST oversight bill

The House Friday gave quick preliminary approval to Senate Bill 13-214, the measure that tweaks some provisions of the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction grant program.

The bill requires the BEST board to maintain an annual reserve to cover the costs of annual lease-purchase agreements (something the board already does) and gives the legislative Capital Development Committee final say over the annual list of BEST lease-purchase projects. During the 2012 session there was some legislative hand wringing over the potential for BEST spending to require a legislative bailout in future years. That concern has ebbed, and the bill is seen as more symbolic than substantive.

Sex education bill finally goes to governor

Both the House and Senate Thursday agreed to a conference committee report on House Bill 13-1081, which creates a grant program for comprehensive sex education, and re-passed the bill.

The bill, first debated in committee early in February, prompted culture wars-style partisan rhetoric over abstinence and the role of schools in teaching sex education, with an undercurrent of anxiety about homosexuality. The bill actually went through two conference committees, but the changes didn’t appease Republican critics.

“This bill still stinks,” Stephens said Thursday, and the 37-27 House final vote split on partisan lines. The Senate was similarly split, re-passing the bill 20-13.

Down to the wire for merit aid bill

The Senate Education Committee will have a rare Friday session to consider House Bill 13-1320, a proposal designed to make it possible for state colleges to again offer merit scholarships to Colorado.

The bill allows state colleges to adjust ratios of resident and non-resident students so as to raise more tuition revenue from out-of-staters, giving colleges revenue they can use for resident merit scholarships. The bill currently also contains $3 million in state funds for merit aid.

Advocates had hoped the bill would be heard in committee on Thursday, but the necessary updated fiscal analysis by legislative staff wasn’t ready. Lobbyists working the measure expect the $3 million may be eliminated or reduced, and they’re also working on both wavering Democratic and Republican votes on the committee.

The measure is the last 2013 education bill pending in a committee other than appropriations. Lawmakers have to adjourn by May 8.

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.