A hint of debates to come

Testing, standards skepticism surface at pre-session legislative hearing

The state’s academic standards and testing system drew skeptical questions from both sides of the political aisle Wednesday, providing a taste of what are expected to be prolonged discussions on those issues after the 2015 legislative session convenes on Jan. 7.

“Maybe it’s time we had an open mind on whether we’ve headed in the right direction,” suggested Sen.-elect Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, referring to education reform initiatives of the last several years and flat student performance over the last decade.

“Just suppose Colorado backs out of Common Core. What effect will that have?” asked Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

The two repeatedly asked such questions during a pre-session joint meeting of House and Senate education committee members, who gathered for a briefing on the strategic plans of the departments of education and higher education.

The annual event is typically a pro forma affair, but this is the time of year when lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staff and Capitol observers start looking for rhetorical straws in the wind that might give hints about the upcoming session.

“The discussion was very interesting,” said Sen.-elect Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who sat at the back of the hearing room and didn’t participate in the discussion.

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo

Merrifield is a retired music teacher and former House member who won a Senate seat last month. He’s known for his skepticism about almost any kind of education reform idea.

He also had questions about the Common Core State Standards, asking, “Are the assessments going to be fair in assessing Colorado standards?”

Wilson, a retired rural superintendent with a taste for Western-cut suits and cowboy boots, complained about federal testing requirements, asking, “Why do the feds have any right to tell us how we assess our students in Colorado?”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

Merrifield has been named to the 2015 Senate Education Committee. Wilson served on House Education last session and is a big advocate for small districts and for increased kindergarten funding.

Department of Education leaders gamely and politely tried to answer the two lawmakers’ questions.

Responding to Merrifield’s first question, Commissioner Robert Hammond noted that education initiatives such as new standards and educator evaluation only rolled out in districts last school year so it’s too early to gauge their impact on student achievement.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when you’re just starting,” Hammond said. “Education reform is like turning the Titanic. … If we hang with it I’m convinced we’ll see changes.”

Responding to Wilson’s question about dropping out of Common Core, Hammond said, “My answer to that is, what next? … I don’t mean to be flippant, [but] what do we change them to?”

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley responded to Wilson’s federal requirements question by noting Colorado could lose more than $300 million a year in federal funding if it didn’t meet those testing requirements.

“I think it’s a violation of constitutional rights,” Wilson groused.

The meeting, called a SMART Act hearing after the 2010 law that requires such sessions, didn’t draw a lot of legislative interest. Of the 20 current members of the House and Senate education committees, only seven showed up. Merrifield and Neville were the only two new lawmakers to attend. Several current House Education members are term-limited and won’t be returning to the Capitol.

See the slideshow CDE presented at the meeting

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.