Who Is In Charge

Successful day for education bills

Half a dozen education measures, including bills that would exempt back-to-school purchases from state sales taxes and that would encourage wider use of students’ life experience for college credit, advanced Wednesday in the legislature.

Back to school sale illustrationBut House Bill 12-1069, the sales tax holiday, is limping along on a wing and prayer, and some members of the House Finance Committee who voted on the winning side of the 8-5 tally said they only were supporting the bill “for now.”

The measure, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Joe Miklosi and Dan Pabon of Denver, would suspend state sales taxes during the first weekend of August on certain school-related purchases, such as school supplies, clothing, sports equipment and some electronics. (There would be a per-item price ceiling on items purchased.)

The bill came up as late afternoon was turning to early evening, and it consumed 90 minutes of committee time as panel members and witnesses debated whether the measure would cost the state tax revenue or increase tax collections, whether the bill would be a boon to big chain retailers and a headache for small businesses and other issues.

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Pabon and Miklosi were clearly eager to do whatever they could to get the bill out of committee. They offered an amendment – which the committee accepted – that would lower the price ceiling for exempt items and also reduce the potential cost of the bill.

An analysis by legislative staff estimates the bill could cost the state about $5.8 million in lost revenue. The amendment supposedly would reduce that to $4.4 million. (Chris Howes, head of the Colorado Retail Council, testified in support of the bill and, gently disputing the staff analysis, said the tax holiday actually would increase state revenue, based on the experience of states that have such laws.)

Some Democratic members of the committee criticized the bill for potentially threatening state funding of schools. (Nobody mentioned that $4-$6 million is a tiny fraction of total school support of more than $5 billion.) Some Republicans were nervous about the bill’s possible effect on small businesses.

Summing up, Pabon promised that if he and Miklosi can’t find a way to pay for the bill, he would personally move that it be killed in the House Appropriations Committee.

That apparently convinced some members, although three of the eight yes voters said they were only supporting the bill “for now.”

Get college credit for your life

A bit earlier in the day the House Education Committee took up House Bill 12-1072, which would direct the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the state’s colleges and universities to develop a system for giving adult students college credit for life experiences and learning, such as that gained in the military and the workplace.

Some state campuses already offer such programs, and there’s an established set of tests run by the College Board to assess life and professional experience. (The College Board’s lobbyist testified in favor of the bill.) But the idea here is to encourage greater use of the idea – and thereby perhaps increase graduation rates in the state higher ed system.

The committee did approve an amendment that would have the effect of requiring individual colleges to do more of the work developing the program, rather than the CCHE and the Department of Higher Education. The idea behind that change was to eliminate any new costs and thereby avoid sending the bill to the dreaded House Appropriations Committee.

House Ed members voted 12-0 to pass the bill to the floor.

The committee also considered House Bill 12-1043, a measure that would expand concurrent enrollment options for students who are still in high school but want to take college classes. The measure would add to current double enrollment options by requiring school districts to help students take courses as the college of their choice – and pay for part of the cost.

School district lobbyists have pushed back at the bill because of potential costs. Sponsor Rep. Kathleen Conti, R- Littleton, on Wednesday proposed an amendment – which the committee approved – that would reduce some of the perceived burden on districts.

But, like the sales tax-holiday bill, HB 12-1043 has uncertain future prospects. Even committee chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, who voted for the bill, told Conti she needs to do more work on the measure. The bill passed 8-4.

Compliments all around in Senate Ed

The Senate Education Committee Wednesday gave 7-0 approval to House Bill 12-1001, which would ratify the regulations issued by the State Board of Education to implement Senate Bill 12-191, the educator evaluation law.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo
SB 10-191 gave the legislature special review powers over the regulations, a compromise Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, inserted into the bill in order to placate the Colorado Education Association and its legislative supporters. The idea was that the legislature could be the backstop on any proposed rules that might be seen as punitive on teachers.

But the rules, crafted over two years by the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, have gained support from every segment of the education community. So, legislative approval has become kind of a pro forma process.

Still, Johnston, the father of SB 10-191, marked Wednesday’s committee approval as a notable moment.

And Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said, “We probably anticipated at that time that we would not have this kumbaya moment.”

(The State Board of Education Wednesday started the approval process for a subset of the SB 10-191 rules, those involving teacher appeals of ineffective ratings – see story.)

Senate Ed also approved Senate Bill 12-061, a measure designed to improve and standardize the processes of charter school authorizing and dealing with failing charter schools. The committee did a little in-the-weeds tinkering with the measure, but the original core of the bill remains. The bill is being pushed by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, is supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards and stems from the recommendations of a study panel that recommended improvements in charter school standards and authorizing.

Metro name bill introduced

The only education bill introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 12-148, which would change the name of Metro State to Metropolitan State University of Denver.

For the record

The following education bills of interest (but of less interest than the ones noted above) advanced in the legislature Wednesday:

  • House Bill 12-1090, which would move the annual Oct. 1 student enrollment count day if a religious holiday fell on that date. Received preliminary House floor approval.
  • Senate Bill 12-145, which caps current-year transfers from state school lands revenues into annual school funding. Passed by Senate Education.

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

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.