Who Is In Charge

Final Senate OK for 2010-11 school cuts

Wednesday roundup
Senate spars over CEA ‘subsidy’
TABOR exemptions introduced
Wins for Ft. Lewis, leadership academy
For the record

Update 10:50 a.m., April 1 – The Senate Thursday gave final approval to House Bill 10-1369, the school finance measure for next school year. The bill provides the mechanism for the most significant cut in state K-12 in many years.

The Senate amended parts of the bill that relate to funding of seven districts that have high local revenues. It’s expected that House-Senate differences in the bill will be dealt with in conference committee.

Also Thursday the House gave final approval to House Bill 10-1376, the main state 2010-11 budget bill.

(Text of Thursday story follows.)

The Senate Wednesday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-1369, the school finance bill that cuts 2010-11 state aid to K-12 schools 6.3 percent below the level originally approved for this year.

The outcome wasn’t in doubt, given the state’s budget situation, but that didn’t prevent senators from debating three amendments related to the equity of the cuts, to declining districts and to district administrative costs.

A primary goal of the bill is ensuring that all districts receive an equal percentage cut – the 6.3 percent.

But a handful of the state’s 178 school districts – seven, to be exact – have higher-than-average local revenues and therefore receive relatively small amounts of state aid. As the bill was passed by the House, HB 10-1369 would force those districts to temporarily reduce local revenue in order to realize overall cuts of 6.3 percent.

The districts are Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit.

Some senators were uncomfortable with the idea of taking away what local voters had approved, and the issue became the focus of floor debate Wednesday. The Senate ultimately approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, to bar reduction of the local revenue in the seven districts.

The Senate rejected a counter amendment by Democratic Sens. Pat Steadman and Michael Johnston, both of Denver. It would have required the seven districts to take the cut out of state aid for transportation and other special-purpose funding, not from local revenue.

Senators also rejected an amendment by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, to cushion the cuts to 17 districts that are losing additional amounts of state support because their enrollments are declining. (Brophy represents a large rural senatorial district.) The amendment prompted sharp criticism from Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, who’s long complained about funding of what he calls “phantom students.” (Current state law contains a formula that spreads out over several years the revenue losses experienced by shrinking districts.)

The Senate did pass an amendment proposed by Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. It “encourages” school districts within individual counties to discuss ways they could save money by sharing administration services.

The amendment initially died on a voice vote but subsequently passed on a 20-14 roll call.

Many smaller districts around the state already are sharing some services, but the issue remains touchy because many smaller communities fear the specter of district consolidation. A recent study done for the state found there widespread consolidation might not necessarily save much money.

The Senate amendments make it likely differences will have to be resolved in a conference committee.

One spat generates a second

Despite having spent a fair amount of time Monday wrangling over a minor education data bill, the Senate managed to spend another 25 minutes Wednesday quarrelling before passing House Bill 10-1171 on a  20-14 party-line vote.

The measure is intended to eliminate a handful of reports school districts have to make to the Colorado Department of Education. But it’s become freighted with differing views about the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and rhetoric about which party is the bigger champion of government transparency.

At issue was one report targeted by the bill, a spreadsheet named CDE-18, which is a summary of a district’s budget.

CDE officials have said repeatedly that the only organization that’s ever asked for CDE-18 information is the CEA, which uses it for research. (However, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, another interest group that doesn’t necessarily agree with CEA on all points of education policy, supports continuing the CDE-18 requirement.)

The Senate Monday took CDE-18 out of the bill, meaning school districts and other education agencies will have to continue filing it. On Wednesday, Sen. Gail Scwhartz, -D-Snowmass, proposed an amendment that would “encourage” districts to also post the budget report on their websites.

That reignited the whole debate, with Democrats arguing for transparency and public information and Republicans complaining about a burden on schools and doing favors for the CEA.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, complained about “a redundant report that makes no sense for any organization but one,” referring to an “untenable burden” for school districts. (A legislative staff report on the bill concluded eliminating the whole batch of reports would generate no cost savings for districts.)

“This body has become the tool of a private organization,” fumed Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “I ask for a no vote on the CEA subsidy bill.”

“It has nothing to do with across the street,” said Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, a retired teacher. (CEA headquarters sits just northeast of the Capitol, on the north side of East Colfax Avenue.)

CEA is a major contributor to Democratic legislative candidates and a regular whipping boy for some Republicans.

Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, got in a dig on the issue, saying he missed former Senate President Peter Groff, a Denver Democrat who frequently differed with CEA on education reform. Because of that loss of education reform leadership, perhaps “it’s not a coincidence” that Colorado ranked so poorly in the Race to the Top competition, Penry said.

The debate also hinted at the rhetorical partisan switch that’s happened this year on the issue of the transparency of school district finances. Republicans attempted to make hay with that issue in 2009 with a bill requiring districts provide extensive financial information on their websites. That bill died, but over the summer Democrats and school districts developed their own version of the legislation, House Bill 10-1036, which was passed earlier this session and has been sent to the governor.

TABOR-exemption resolutions both introduced

Companion resolutions that propose a constitutional amendment that would exempt state education spending from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requirement that voters approve tax increases have been formally introduced.

The measures are House Concurrent Resolution 10-1002, introduced Tuesday, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-002, introduced Wednesday. Each was assigned to the respective education committee in each house.

Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada

The House measure has 29 Democratic sponsors in the House, lead by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada. The eight Democrats on the 13-member House Education Committee all are signed on.

The Senate prime sponsors are Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams of Aurora and Chris Romer of Denver, and the other three sponsors are Sen. Bob. Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education; Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

No Republicans are signed on to the resolutions, either of which will need 44 House votes and 24 in the Senate to go to the voters in November. Getting those totals will require at least a few GOP votes.

The idea isn’t likely to pass; even some sponsors have said they don’t think it will. But, the proposal is regarded as a “conversation starter” on the issue of school funding, which will be cut significantly in 2010-11.

Twin measures were introduced to ensure the idea will be discussed in both houses. If a single proposal dies in its house of origin, it never gets discussed in the second house.

According to an Associated Press story, other budget-related proposals are in the works for the closing weeks of the session. Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, and Minority Leader Mike May, D-Parker, reportedly are behind the ideas. (Both are term limited.)

The ideas reportedly include a common application for all higher education institutions and diversion of all remedial students to community colleges; greater operational flexibility for the Department of Corrections, including the ability to close prisons, and requiring local governments to contribute to transportation projects.

House plows through budget bills

The House spent most of the day considering 2010-11 budget-balancing bills and House Bill 10-1376, the long appropriations bill.

Because amending the long bill is a zero-sum game – you can’t add spending in one place without subtracting dollars someplace else – floor debate is basically an exercise in political theater (with a very dull plot).

However, representatives did approve removal of a footnote that forbid the Fort Lewis College trustees from raising out-of-state tuition. (This is part of the David-and-Goliath fight between Fort Lewis and state budget bureaucrats over the cost of educating non-resident Native American students. Under an old treaty, such students get free tuition.)

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And, Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, won approval for an amendment restoring $75,000 in funding for the school leadership academy, a principal training program created by Merrifield legislation two years ago.

(An early Joint Budget Committee proposal to also eliminate the Colorado Counselor Corps program didn’t make it into the long bill as it was introduced.)

For the record

The House voted 65-0 to pass Senate Bill 10-154, which changes accreditation standards for alternative schools. But the bulk of the day in the House was being spent on House Bill 10-1376, the 2010-11 long appropriations bill, and several related budget-balancing measures.

The Senate Education Committee passed House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to run school food service programs and create a still-to-be-funded grant program to help BOCES buy healthy foods. The panel also passed House Bill 10-1035, which is designed to streamline the eligibility process for various early childhood services.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: