School Finance

A66 backers try to sort out reasons for big defeat

Voter aversion to tax increases and mistrust of government doomed Amendment 66, supporters of the proposed tax increase said Tuesday night after the ballot measure went down to resounding defeat.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

But supporters, from Gov. John Hickenlooper on down, promised that they’ll continue to work to improve school funding – although few concrete ideas about how to do that were on display at a subdued Yes on 66 “party” at the Marriott City Center.

“The individual voters we thought we had said they weren’t sure they could trust government,” said Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a prime backer of A66. “We caught people at a bad moment,” explaining that he felt the recent federal government shutdown and the failings of the federal health insurance website soured voters on another big government program.

Andrew Freedman, Colorado Commits to Kids campaign manager, said internal polling in recent days showed that external events such as the federal shutdown had eroded earlier support for A66.

A key Johnston ally, Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, said the recent devastating flooding also distracted voters. “It made it hard for people to focus,” he said.

Johnston also said the election results raise the question, “Have Colorado voters decided they don’t want to change their tax burden?”

With more than a million votes counted late Tuesday night, A66’s yes vote was only 34 percent, compared to 66 percent voting no.

The amendment was defeated in nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Pueblo and Weld.

Even in two reliably Democratic counties, Boulder and Denver, the “yes” votes were clinging to leads of about 1 percentage point in late returns.

The defeat came despite a professional, $10 million campaign in favor of the amendment. A loose coalition of opponents spent less than $1 million. And the margin of defeat was about the same as that for Proposition 103 in 2011. That initiative proposed a much smaller, temporary tax increase to fund K-12 and higher education, and that campaign raised well under $1 million.

A66 proposed a permanent, two-step increase in state income tax rates that was expected to raise $950 million in the first year. That money was needed to fund the reforms contained in Senate Bill 13-213, a law that now remains on the shelf with A66’s defeat.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

The mood was already somber as amendment supporters gathered in the hotel’s ballroom Tuesday evening, with many people anticipating the defeat. Interestingly, there were no monitors in the room showing results or TV news bulletins.

About an hour after the polls closed, a parade of speakers came to podium to thank campaigners for their hard work and to promise continued work on improving funding for Colorado schools.

Johnston said, “Democracy is not always easy, but it is always right. … The supporters and opponents of this measure both want the same things … great education, a strong economy and a healthy state. What we disagreed about was how to pay for it, and that was the narrow questions that were decided tonight. … We need to restart this conversation as a state.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “Every great social victory is based on a number of failures. There are always setbacks before we get to that ultimate success. … We’ll keep working on this.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia had the same sentiments, saying, “We need to come back, we need to continue to fight for kids. … We know that kids can live up to our expectations. … Our kids have every right to have high expectations for all of us.”

Freedman said, “Please take tonight not to mourn but to celebrate what we’ve all been through.”

While promising to keep working for better school funding, advocates had no answers Tuesday night about what that effort might look like, saying time is needed to figure out exactly why voters didn’t like A66 and to plot a way forward.

Asked if he would try to advance pieces of the SB 13-213 package in the 2014 legislature, Johnston said, “I can’t answer that yet.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Heath, asked about the 2014 session, said, “I don’t see a lot of very monumental things happening.” He said there needs to be a focus on implementing existing education reforms, such as educator evaluations and the early literacy program. “If we can get all of that right I would be very happy.”

Chris Watney, head of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, echoed that, saying, “We need to regroup and focus on the things that already are in law.” The campaign two years ago started the studies and discussion that helped lead to SB 13-213 and A66.

“I think tonight was a decision about taxes,” not education reform, Watney said.  That point was echoed by Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, who said “the anti-government sentiment was strong.”

A66 would have provided significant funding for implementation of reforms such as new academic standards and teacher evaluation, and Salazar said the defeat puts successful implementation of those programs “at risk.” But he added that “it’s too early to say” if delays might be needed in some of those initiatives.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, probably spoke for many in the room when he said, “It does feel like a body blow. … We need to take a little time and regroup.”

Other education tax proposals

Voters in several individual school districts also were stingy Tuesday.

According to information compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project, returns showed bond issues or tax overrides failing in Commerce City, Canon City, Elizabeth, Westminster, Bennett, Cheyenne County, Estes Park, Fremont Re-3, Estes Park, Lake County, Lewis-Palmer, Meeker, Walsh, Wiley and East Grand.

An $80 million bond issue passed in Littleton. It didn’t require new taxes but continues and existing one. A Fort Morgan bond also was successful. And six small districts – Creede, Haxtun, Kim, Limon, Moffat 2 and South Conejos – trying to raise local matches for state Building Excellent Schools Today grants apparently also were successful.

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.

Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.