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Denver Scholarship Foundation seeks local tax support

Leaders of the city’s college scholarship fund for graduates of Denver Public Schools are seeking a ballot measure to raise local sales taxes to help pay for the student aid.

Denver Councilman Chris Herndon plans to introduce a bill on Wednesday that would add a tax measure that would support the Denver Scholarship Foundation to November’s ballot. The measure would raise Denver’s sales tax rate by a tenth of a cent for the next decade, essentially extending the stadium sales tax that expired in 2011.

Right now, the foundation is funded entirely by philanthropy and grants. Under the new proposal, 55 percent of the foundation’s resources would come from sales tax revenues and the rest would continued to be raised through private support, said Nate Easley, the foundation’s executive director.

“We’re kind of at a crossroads right now,” Easley said in an interview Friday. “It gets increasingly challenging to meet our promise to kids in terms of fundraising.”

Any DPS graduate who meets the foundation’s eligibility requirements, which include demonstration of financial need and at least a 2.0 grade point average, can receive up to $17,000 in scholarship funds over five years. The number of students graduating from the city’s schools and receiving the funds has increased in recent years, Easley said, with about 900 college freshman set to begin receiving support this fall and approximately 1,100 students seeking to renew their funding.

In addition to the financial aid, the fund also pays for support services to help students persist in college and for 16 “future centers,” which are located at Denver high schools and help guide students through the college application and financial aid process.

Supporters of the foundation have been working in recent weeks to garner City Council support for the measure, which is not assured. The council is also considering adding a ballot measure for a new sales tax on recreational marijuana. The new measure would also appear on the same ballot as a proposed statewide $950 million tax hike for K-12 public education.

At an appearance Friday with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Gov. John Hickenlooper singled out the foundation as an example of an education investment that drives measurable, successful outcomes. Of the 3,300 students who have received scholarships since 2007, nearly 80 percent have either graduated from college or are still enrolled in school.

Hickenlooper helped launch the scholarship fund when he was mayor of Denver. When asked on Friday whether he believed a second local tax for education in Denver would affect the city’s support for the statewide education tax hike that Hickenlooper has pledged to support, the governor said it could go either way.

“I can see both sides,” he said. “There’s an argument that more education, more attention on that [issue] helps everybody. [But] too many initiatives, sometimes, there’s some muscle fatigue.”

The governor added that the scholarship foundation stands as a model for promoting college attainment and completion.

“Left to my own devices, I think there should be a statewide funding for scholarships,” Hickenlooper said. “To allow kids — they need to hear in the third grade that if they work hard enough, it doesn’t matter what the financial circumstances of their family are, if they work hard enough, they’ll have the opportunity to go to college.

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