Words of caution

Hick: TABOR repeal “a doomed effort”

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the CASE convention on Feb. 6.

Gov. John Hickenlooper told a large audience of school administrators Friday that he “can’t imagine” the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights being repealed and that instead the state needs to “modify the different parts of the constitution to put them more in harmony.”

Hickenlooper’s message to the annual winter meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives probably wasn’t quite what some of the group wanted to hear, on TABOR or on other issues.

After the governor had finished his 20-minute speech, Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger asked Hickenlooper if he would lead a campaign to repeal TABOR. “We will need the governor to lead that charge.”

“To take on that battle … right now, that would be a doomed effort,”Hickenlooper said. “We’d be better served to look at modifying TABOR. I’m not politic, but at least I’m honest.”

Here are the highlights of what the governor said on other key issues.

School spending: He touted his proposed increase of about $380 million in state funding for 2015-16, but he warned about future years. “We’re at a serious turning point” in the following budget year, 2016-17, Hickenlooper said. For that year required K-12 spending increases “will more than eclipse all the projected new money for every other purpose in the state.”

Reducing the shortfall in K-12 spending “should be a priority for all of us,” he added. “But to create a system where no other part of the state [government] is able to grow is going to be a very great challenge.”

“There are no quick fixes, there is no magic wand out there.”

Testing: “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past 12 months on testing,” the governor told the group.

He didn’t refer to any specific possible changes in testing but broadly cautioned against radical changes. “We are seeing an international jobs war. The key to winning that competition is going to be education, and we’ve got to have some way to measure our success.”

He continued, “I get it – the volume of assessments has taken too much time away from teaching. That’s something we should be able to solve.”

But, he cautioned again, “Streamlining can’t come at the expense of maintaining fairness and consistency across every Colorado community.”

Community dialogue: On both finance and testing Hickenlooper stressed the need for expanded community dialogue across the state. “All of us need to do a better job of listening. … No one’s going to get everything they want.”

How schools are doing: “Despite all the budget cuts … there has been a lot of good news coming out of Colorado schools,” Hickenlooper said, citing achievement gains in districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Denver Public Schools and Edison in El Paso County.

“I think we are beginning to close the opportunity gap in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the greatest state … I think our education system is well on its way to being a reflection of that.”

After the governor left, a panel of six superintendents reacted to the speech and discussed other issues.

“I would agree with the governor that I think the repeal of TABOR is a fool’s errand,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain district.

But, as the session closed, Messinger said, “I think we have to be very resistant about accepting this as the new normal.” Changing TABOR “may be impossible, but only if we believe it’s impossible. … We can accept this as the new normal … or we can create the new normal and move a lower tax state into a higher tax state.”

The TABOR amendment requires voter approval for all state and local tax increases. It also sets limits on how much new revenue that state can spend in a given year. Rising state revenues are pushing the state budget toward that ceiling and may require tax refunds as early as the next budget year.

The legislature could submit a ballot measure to voters asking to retain the extra revenues, but it’s considered unlikely that will happen this session.

A second constitutional provision, the Gallagher amendment, sets limits on property tax collections and acts in combination with TABOR to limit local district revenues, shifting the burden of K-12 funding to the state. And a third provision, Amendment 23, requires school spending to increase by inflation and enrollment growth every year.

What superintendents are asking

A large group of Colorado superintendents came together to push for reduction of what’s called the negative factor, the shortfall in K-12 spending that began building after the 2008 recession.

They had some success with that lobbying effort, and this year superintendents are pushing for addition of $70 million to 2015-16 K-12 spending on top of Hickenlooper’s plan. The proposal would allocate $50 million to districts for at-risk students and $20 million to small rural districts.

A statement proposing that idea was signed by 174 superintendents in November, and several dozen of the district leaders gathered at a news conference Thursday to publicize the idea. (Read full statement.)

“This proposal is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said.

Superintendents pose for group portrait at CASE convention.
Superintendents pose for group portrait at CASE convention.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

School Finance

IPS board votes to ask taxpayers for $315 million, reject the chamber’s plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indianapolis Public Schools officials voted Tuesday to ask taxpayers for $315 million over eight years to help close its budget gap — an amount that’s less than half the district’s initial proposal but is still high enough to draw skepticism from a local business group.

The school board pledged to continue discussions in the next week with the Indy Chamber, which released an alternative proposal last week calling for massive spending cuts and a significantly smaller tax increase. The school board rejected the proposal as unrealistic and instead voted to add a much larger tax measure to the November ballot.

If the school board and the chamber come to a different agreement before the July 24 meeting, the board can change the request for more taxpayer money before it goes to voters. Some board members, however, were dubious that they would be able to find common ground.

“While I appreciate the fact that we want to continue to negotiate, I’m pretty sure that I’m at rock bottom now,” said school board member Kelly Bentley. “That initial proposal by the chamber is, unfortunately in my mind, it’s insulting. It’s insulting to our children, and to our neighborhoods, and to our families.”

Chamber leaders, whose support is considered important to the referendum passing, were skeptical about the dollar amount. In a press release, the group said the district was “taking another step towards seeking a double-digit tax increase.”

“We’re concerned that our numbers are so divergent,” said chamber president and CEO Michael Huber in the statement. “We need to study the assumptions behind the $318 million request; clearly the tax impact is significant and the task of winning voter support will be challenging.”

During the board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, district leaders discussed why schools need more money and why the chamber report is unrealistic. They also took comments from community members who were largely supportive of the tax increase.

Joe Ignatius, who mentors students through 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, said that he has seen the benefits of more funding from referendums in other communities.

“This should be a no brainer, to invest in our future for the students,” Ignatius said. “Don’t think about the immediate impact of the dollars that may come out of your pocket but more the long-term impact.”

If the district goes forward with its plan, and voters approve the tax increase, the school system would get as much as $39.4 million more per year for eight years. A family with a home at the district’s median value — $75,300 — would pay about $3.90 more per month in property taxes. (Since the initial proposal, the district reduced the median home value used in calculations on the advice of a consultant.)

The district plan comes on the heels of months of uncertainty. After the school board abandoned its initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion for operating expenses and construction, district officials spent weeks working with the Indy Chamber to craft a less costly proposal. Last month, the board approved a separate referendum to ask taxpayers for about $52 million for school renovations, particularly school safety features.

But the groups came to different conclusions about how much money the district needs for operating expenses.

The chamber released an analysis last week that called for $477 million in cuts, including eliminating busing for high school students, reducing the number of teachers, closing schools, and cutting central office staff. The recommendation also included a $100 million tax increase to fund 16 percent raises for teachers.

District officials, however, say the cuts proposed by the chamber are too aggressive and cannot be accomplished as quickly as the group wants. The administration and board members spent nearly an hour of the meeting Tuesday discussing the chamber plan, why they believe it’s methodology is wrong, and the devastating consequences they say it would have on schools.

Even if the $315 million plan proposed by the district passes, it will come with some sacrifices compared to the initial plan. Those cuts could include: reduced transportation for magnet schools, field trips, and after school activities; school closings; increased benefits costs for employees; and smaller pay increases for teachers and employees.

The district did not make a specific commitment to how much teacher pay would increase if the amount asked for in the referendum is approved, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the funds would pay for consistent raises.

“We would be at least addressing inflationary increases and cost of living, but we hope that we can be higher than that,” said Ferebee. “It would depend a lot on what we are able to realize in savings.”

The school board’s decision to rebuff the chamber’s recommendation puts the district in a difficult position. The chamber has no official role in determining the amount of the referendum, but it could be a politically powerful ally.

Last week, Al Hubbard, an influential philanthropist and businessman who provided major funding for the chamber analysis, said that if the district seeks more money than the group recommended, he would oppose the referendum.

The total tax increase would vary for each homeowner within district boundaries. The operating increase would raise taxes by up to $0.28 for every $100 of assessed property value, while the construction increase would raise taxes by up to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property value.