over and out

Douglas County school board ends controversial voucher program

Cindy Barnard, second from left, applauds after the Douglas County school board voted to end the district's voucher program. Barnard is one of the original plaintiffs in the voucher court case. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

CASTLE ROCK — The Douglas County school board voted Monday to end a controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.

The board voted 6-0 at a standing-room-only meeting to rescind the program, which was put on a hold in 2011 by a Denver District Court judge before families could use it.

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

The Colorado Supreme Court, which earlier this summer was directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the case, will have the ultimate say in whether the legal challenge will end.

However, the court usually does not consider moot cases, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, a plaintiff in the case.

The board’s action is a blow to conservative education reform advocates and voucher supporters in Colorado and across the country. Proponents of vouchers had hoped a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent.

The legal question at the center of the voucher debate is whether a local school district can send tax dollars to private-religious institutions. A majority of the schools that enrolled in the Douglas County voucher system, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, were religious.

The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the district could not because the state’s constitution forbid it. The U.S. Supreme Court gave voucher supporters renewed hope earlier this year when in a similar case it issued a narrow ruling for a preschool run by a church.

A network of voucher supporters have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.

Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit that advocates for free-market policies including private school vouchers, announced Friday it was spending “five-figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the board’s decision to end the program and monitor the board’s action going forward.

“The new school board must put the needs of school children before any political belief,” Jesse Mallory, the group’s Colorado state director, said in a statement. “Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted. If the board believes they should deny children more educational opportunities, AFP-Colorado will hold them accountable.”

Opponents of vouchers, who showed up in force Monday night, presented a lengthy lists of claims against private schools and vouchers. Some argued that private schools discriminate against students. Others suggested vouchers were part of a scheme to privatize education.

“What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said one speaker, Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”

Monday’s meeting comes nearly one month after four anti-voucher candidates — Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — resoundingly won seats on the board. Their opponents campaigned to keep the legal fight alive.

“This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district,” said Stephanie Van Zante, another county resident who spoke during public comment. “Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics.”

Leung, who is a plaintiff in the legal case against the voucher program, recused himself from voting on ending the program.

For Cindy Barnard, the original plaintiff in the legal fight, Monday’s decision was six years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m very, very happy to hear the district rescind the program,” Barnard said. “Knowing that public school funds will stay in our public schools — it’s a good day.”

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect how Americans For Prosperity is spending “five-figures” to monitor the Douglas County school board in general. 

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.