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.

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


Five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

Bill to arm some Tennessee teachers with handguns dies


The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.