Who Is In Charge

No go for school supplies tax credit

Freshman Rep. Tom Dore made a spirited pitch but wasn’t able to convince Democrats on the House Finance Committee that it would be a good idea to give parents a tax credit of up to $500 a year for what they spend on school supplies and fees.

Picture of school suppliesAfter more than an hour of debate, the committee voted 7-5 to kill the Elizabeth Republican’s House Bill 13-1094. All seven committee Democrats opposed the bill; five Republicans supported it.

The measure was one of four education-related tax credit bills introduced so far this year.

“These are real dollars for Colorado’s working families,” Dore told the committee, referring to the money parents have to spend on school supplies, tissues and even for bus trips.

The legislature should say, “We want to give you something back,” he argued.

Some committee Democrats were more concerned about the revenue the bill might take away from the state budget – and schools. A legislative staff analysis estimated passage of the bill would cut state revenues by $19.4 million during this budget year, by $39.9 million in 2013-14 and by $42.6 million in 2014-15. That fiscal note estimated about 500,000 taxpayers a year would take advantage of the credit.

“It seems to me like it would be taking away resources for schools,” said freshman Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora.

Dore, as lawmakers often do when faced with a costly staff analysis, downplayed the fiscal note.

“It’s a guesstimate,” he said, arguing that taxpayers would spend the money they saved on taxes for other consumer goods.

Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, complained because the tax credit would be taken by rich taxpayers and parents who send their kids to private schools.

The back-and-forth dragged on long enough that chair Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, had to interject.

“I’m going to ask the committee members to come up with new questions,” Court said. “I think we’ve beaten a few of these horses to death already.”

Dore’s bill took a different approach than a 2012 measure that proposed a three-day sales tax holiday on school supplies. That bill, somewhat surprisingly, was passed by the House and approved by one Senate committee before dying in a second panel in the session’s closing days.

The other tax credit bills in play this year include:

  • House Bill 13-1151, which proposes a sales tax holiday in August for textbooks sold in college bookstores
  • House Bill 13-1176 and Senate Bill 13-069, both of which propose tax credits for private school tuition and donations for private school scholarships

School resource officers bill advances

Photo of Capitol rally
More than 750 parents, students, and teachers gathered at the Capitol Feb. 6 in support of online public schools during Cyberschools Day, sponsored by the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families and the Colorado Cyberschools Association.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday gave 5-0 approval to Senate Bill 13-138, a somewhat technical measure that would require school resource officers to be fully informed about and integrated into school emergency response plans, safety drills and communications system. (See this staff analysis for more details.)

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Steve King, R-Grant Junction and a tireless advocate for improved school security plans and communications with emergency agencies. The bill now moves to the Senate Education Committee.

For the record

Two other bills of education interest were heard by committees Wednesday, including:

House Bill 13-1040 – House Finance killed this measure, which would have based Public Employees’ Retirement Association pensions on the average of a retiree’s seven highest years of salary. The current base is three years. The hearing had a familiar, ritualistic tone to it, with GOP lawmakers making arguments while PERA’s CEO and retirees opposed it. The measure would have applied only to new employees, not current civil servants or retirees. All Colorado teachers are covered by PERA.

Senate Bill 13-065 – This measure would have allowed local governments, including school boards, to use “approval voting” in nonpartisan elections. Approval voting is a system in which voters may vote for as many candidates as they want. Despite bipartisan sponsorship and endorsements from both Common Cause and GOP Secretary of State Scott Gessler, the Senate State Affairs Committee killed the bill on a 3-2 vote.

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 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.