Fact check

War of words ratchets up in casino expansion campaign

The launch of five video ads by supporters of Amendment 68 has kicked off the 10-week media battle over expansion of casino gambling in exchange for providing extra funding to the state’s schools.

The proposed constitutional amendment will be on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot. If passed it would allow opening of a full casino at the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the southeast suburbs, with a portion of the revenues devoted to K-12 funding.

The campaign pits the Rhode Island casino company that owns Arapahoe Park against the gambling corporations that own existing casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, the only places casinos currently are allowed by the state constitution. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for background on the amendment.)

As with almost all ballot measure ads, the pro-A68 spots produced by Coloradans for Better Schools reduce complicated policy issues to quick sound bites – there’s only so much one can or wants to say in a 30-second spot.

Here’s Chalkbeat Colorado’s analysis of the assertions made in the five ads. (Some claims are repeated in multiple ads; others are made in only one or two.)

Schools are underfunded – The adequacy of school funding can be a subjective issue. Most people in the Colorado education world agree that schools are underfunded compared to what other states spend, to past per-pupil funding rates or compared to actual costs. But a few in conservative circles dissent from that view and think Colorado schools have plenty of money.

Colorado school funding 40th in U.S. – The ad doesn’t cite the source of this stat. The never-ending funding adequacy debate — even among people who support higher funding — is complicated because different groups use different figures and grounds for comparison. You can see a variety of funding comparisons linked from this page on the Colorado School Finance Project’s website. (That group generally favors higher spending.)

How much K-12 revenue – The ads variously refer to “more than” $100 million or $114 million in annual revenue for schools. Legislative analysts who study ballot measures have estimated $114 million could be generated — but not until 2016-17. Analysts also readily acknowledge the difficulty of predicting revenues from taxes on businesses that don’t exist now. State ballot measure projections have been wrong in the past, and “sin taxes” have been an unsteady revenue source for education in the past. (See this detailed Chalkbeat analysis for more information on that history.)

“A huge investment” – The definition of “huge” may depend on whom you ask. The $100 million or so in new revenue would equal about 1.7 percent of the current $5.9 billion in basic school support provided by state and local taxes.

How many new casinos – The amendment would allow casinos in Arapahoe, Mesa and Pueblo counties. The ads say it “permits expanded gaming at no more than three horse race tracks that already have wagering.” The phrase “already have wagering” may sound like there’s more than one, but Arapahoe Park is the only track that currently meets the amendment’s requirements. No horse tracks with wagering currently operate in Mesa and Pueblo counties, and tracks in those counties would have to operate for five years before they’d be eligible to open casinos.

Carpetbaggers – One ad warns that “out-of-state Nevada and Missouri gambling companies” are opposing A68 to “protect their monopoly.” Several casinos in the three mountain towns are owned by out-of-state companies, and they have contributed heavily to Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos, the opposition committee. As noted above, Arapahoe Park is owned by an out-of-state gaming firm, and opponents are targeting that company in their advertising. As for monopoly, the three towns have a geographical monopoly on casinos, but the existing gaming halls don’t have a business monopoly. Any company that wants to open a casino in those towns can do so — if it meets state and local regulatory requirements.

The tax bite – The pro-A68 campaign ads emphasize that schools will get additional revenues “without costing taxpayers one penny.” It’s true that the amendment does not propose any increases in income or sales taxes. But opponents jumped on this claim with both feet, issuing a news release that argues passage of A68 could create new costs for taxpayers in Arapahoe County and would cut into gambling business in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, thereby reducing tax revenues that now go to local governments, historic preservation and community colleges. The opposition statement hinted that taxpayers might have to backfill those losses. Those opposition claims are speculative about what might happen in the future, but the legislative staff analysts do project an Arapahoe Park casino would cannibalize revenues from the three mountain towns.

Coloradans for Better Schools launched the ads this week on network stations in Denver, Colorado Springs-Pueblo and Grand Junction this week, according to a spokeswoman. The opposition group hasn’t announced its TV ad plans, but opposition mailers already are landing in mailboxes.

Two of the new ads feature a teacher and a former administrator, but education groups traditionally have been lukewarm or hostile to such sin-tax proposals, which usually have been developed without consulting the education community. On Thursday evening, the Denver school board passed a resolution opposing A68.

Read the full text of A68 here.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.