Who Is In Charge

Union contributions mount up

Headquarters of Colorado Education Association in Denver

Political committees affiliated with Colorado teachers’ unions have spent more than $900,000 so far in the 2010 election season.

The bulk of that total is accounted for by the Colorado Education Association’s $600,000 contribution to the campaign against amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101 (see related story).

But union-affiliated committees also have contributed significantly to Democratic candidates and to a group of 527 committees in a year when Democrats are battling to retain control of the legislature.

The Public Education Committee, CEA’s small donor committee, has donated $10,600 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickelooper and $10,000 each to Secretary of State Bernie Buescher and state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, both Democrats.

The committee also has given nearly $110,000 to 48 Democratic legislative candidates, plus $5,000 to a party committee that supports House candidates and $3,500 to a similar committee that supports Democratic Senate candidates.

The small donor group AFT Colorado Federation Of Teachers, School, Health And Public Employees Committee has given $10,000 to Hickenlooper, $1,000 to Buescher and $2,000 to Kennedy. The committee has contributed to 43 Democratic legislative candidates plus given $5,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund and $4,000 to the House Majority Fund.

Among education-related races this year, the biggest money so far is being spent in the at-large contest for the University of Colorado Board of Regents and in Pueblo County’s House District 47, where a Democratic union leader is battling a Republican construction executive for an open seat.

Melissa Hart
CU Regent candidate Melissa Hart

In the regent race, Democrat Melissa Hart has raised $70,285. She’s a professor at the CU law school. Republican Steve Bosley, the incumbent and a retired Boulder banker, has raised $38,438.

Hart’s contributors, most of whom have kicked in from $100 to $400, are a who’s who of legal and civic leaders and include former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Buescher and Kennedy, State Board of Education members Elaine Gantz Berman and Jane Goff, regents Joe Neguse and Michael Carrigan, former regents Sen. Gail Schwartz and Susan Kirk, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former higher ed chief David Skaggs and lawyer Jim Lyons, who co-chairs the ongoing higher ed strategic planning committee. There are lots of lawyers and several CU faculty members on the contributor list. Hart also has received $1,000 from the CEA small donor committee.

Steve Bosley
CU Regent Steve Bosley

Notable Bosley contributors include businessman Barry Hirschfeld, National Western Stock Show head Pat Grant, politically connected lawyer Steven Farber and former GOP U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong.

In the District 47 race, teacher Carole Partin, president of the Pueblo Education Association, is seeking to hold the seat for the Democrats. She’s received $4,250 from the Public Education Committee, $500 from the CFT small donor committee and $3,250 from the Jefferson County Education Association small donor committee. Overall she’s raised $58,219.

Among Republican Keith Swerdferger’s larger contributors are small donor committees in the real estate, construction and insurance industries. He’s raised $82,041.

The CEA’s Public Education Committee has given its largest contributions – the top so far is $4,250 – to Democrats with tough battles on their hands. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of Senate Bill 10-191, hasn’t received any CEA money in what is considered a safely Democratic northeast Denver district. The CEA fought SB 10-191 vigorously in the last legislative session.

But two senators who did vote for the bill, John Morse of Colorado Springs and Pat Steadman of Denver, did receive contributions. No House Democrats who voted for the bill, including Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, have received funds from the CEA committee.

The Public Education Committee also gave $40,000 to 21st Century Colorado, $50,000 to the Colorado Freedom Fund and $100,000 to Accountability for Colorado. The three are 527 committees associated with the coordinated effort of wealthy donors and labor unions that has worked to elect Democrats in recent Colorado elections. (See this 2008 Denver Post story for background on that effort.) The committee also gave $4,015 to Western Values, a 527 connected to the political consulting firm of Welchert and Britz.

One interesting committee donation was of $3,000 to Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs, who’s running for El Paso County commissioner. Merrifield, a retired music teacher, has been a state representative, chair of the House Education Committee and a staunch CEA ally. He’s leaving the statehouse because of term limits.

(See the committee’s Sept. 7 report and its July 7 contributions.)

Rep, Christine Scanlan
Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon

The AFT’s small donor committee gave contributions to 30 Democratic candidates who also received CEA money. But it also gave money to several other Democratic candidates, including Scanlan and SB 10-191 supporters Mark Ferrandino, Jeanne Labuda and Beth McCann of Denver, and Joe Rice of Littleton. The AFT supported the bill during legislative debates.

Given that the AFT’s smaller membership provides less of a fundraising base than the CEA has, most of the contributions were smaller, generally $250 or $500 per candidate.

The committee gave $1,000 to newly appointed Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver and a former Denver school board member. She beat term-limited Rep. Joel Judd in last month’s Democratic primary. Judd had received $2,125 from the CEA-related committee.

The AFT committee also gave $5,000 each to 21st Century Colorado and Accountability for Colorado.

(See AFT legislative and other contributions.)

The only other union-related committee making significant contributions so far is the Jefferson County Education Association Small Donor Committee, which has spent $45,208.

In addition to Partin, the committee has given contributions to nine other Democratic candidates in the metro area. Those receiving the largest contribution – $4,250 each – include Rep. Sara Gagliardi of Arvada in District 27, retired teacher Laura Huerta in House District 30, Gilpin County Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson in Senate District 16 (which stretches into the central mountains), lawyer Chris Radeff in House District 22 and Rep. Max Tyler of Lakewood in District 23.

All contribution and spending numbers were taken from reports on file with the secretary of state’s office. The most recent set of reports was filed Sept. 7. (Search candidate and committee reports here.)

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.