Funding & 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.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”