Voters give green light to school funding campaigns

Elections proved that City Hall and school boards came out on top with voters in Denver, JeffCo
The Colorado Statesman

There was no greater evidence on election night that politics remains a soft science than the green light Colorado voters gave to most of the school funding campaigns waged along the Front Range. It proved a surprisingly good day to be asking taxpayers for more of their money. The RTD Board ought to be kicking itself around the Market Street station this morning. Bowing to the advice of their political consultants, they ducked an opportunity to accelerate the FASTRACKS program, currently on a desultory 30-year completion calendar. Arguably, it was a chancy bet to appeal to voters for dollars in the face of a shaky Colorado economy and pinched purses. A number of local school districts also took a pass on the ballot box this year in hopes of a better economic environment somewhere over the horizon. That may well prove to have been a mistake.

Denver’s 2A and 3A & 3B

Denver once again proved that city hall and the school board simply can’t ask their residents for too much, too often. As soon as the early vote was announced at 7:05 p.m., the 3A & 3B crowd at the Irish Snug on Colfax erupted in cheers. With 2 to 1 victory margins it was obvious that expanded revenues were on their way — $49 million from the mill levy increase and a whopping $466 million in bonding capacity for physical plant and new schools. Superintendent Tom Boasberg was ecstatic, waxing eloquently about the 4-year olds who would now receive preschool slots. Board President Mary Seawell, who appeared stunned by the size of the winning margins, joined Boasberg in thanking those who played a role in the campaign.

The crowd was actually rather small, perhaps no more than 50 or 60. This cadre of dedicated parents had blanketed the city with yard signs and raised money for the multiple mailings directed at Denver voters. With no opposition other than the grumpy complaint from Board member Arturo Jimenez, who supported 3A, that the 3B bond plan directed too much money to new charter schools rather than to existing classrooms, both requests cruised to easy wins. Nate Easley and Happy Haynes, from the school board, joined in the celebrations.

Mayor Michael Hancock thanked the DPS supporters for “standing up for our children,” whom he identified as the real winners of the election. He promised them that city hall would remain an arm-in-arm partner with Denver’s Public Schools; ready to support expanded investment in the school system’s ‘learning environment.’ But, it was evident his Honor was really chomping at the bit to get to the 2A victory party at Panzano’s on 17th Street. Waiting for him was a blue chip crowd of Denver’s movers and shakers, including Dana Crawford, Steve Farber and most of the 17th Street priesthood. The nearly 3 to 1 approval of his $62 million “de-Brucing” of Denver’s Tabor overruns places the new Mayor in a league with former Mayor and now Governor John Hickenlooper who successfully persuaded Denver voters to approve tax increases on a semi-regular schedule.

Facing a structural $80 million budget deficit, de-Brucing TABOR revenues offered Hancock a “magic bullet” for resolving nearly 80 percent of what would have become a recurring annual shortfall. The Mayor lined up the business community, labor unions, neighborhood groups, City Council and virtually everyone with a pulse behind his initiative. Special thanks were given to interim Mayor Bill Vidal, who appointed the fiscal gap commission that pinpointed the de-Brucing opportunity. Hancock pointed out that Vidal, now at the Hispanic Chamber, had committed to “…stand with you and help get this passed.”

The fact that 2A did not require an increase in taxes, but merely harvested dollars already passing through the cash register made it an easy sell. Denver joined nearly a hundred local governments that have similarly de-Bruced their revenues. Ballot specialists Rick Reiter and Sheila MacDonald then raised half a million dollars to drive home the message and convince voters.

Jefferson County’s 3A & 3B

It has been eight years since the Jefferson County school board successfully persuaded residents to increase taxes for their school district. The district last went to the ballot in 2008, as the economy was crumbling, and nervous taxpayers crushed them. This year the Board was requesting $39 million in a mill levy increase, together with a modest (by Denver standards) $99 million in new bonding authority. Both passed handily. Unlike their Denver counterparts, JeffCo supporters faced a well-organized opposition. Despite a slim budget, they organized an extensive grassroots campaign aimed at parents and grandparents that carried the day.

Campaign co-chair Jonna Levine has been waging these battles for more than a decade and attributed their 2012 success to a bi-partisan, parent driven campaign. She also pointed out an interesting economic argument. JeffCo graduates won $54 million in academic scholarships at colleges across the country last year, largely because of the superior high school education the school district provides its students. Republican PTA activist Shawna Fritzler joined the campaign when she discovered that the kindergarten classes at her neighborhood elementary had more than 30 pupils. “It was ridiculous,” she said. “I decided to investigate whether or not the district was wasting money elsewhere and all I found was a decade of increasingly severe cuts in the classroom,” she added.

When Congressional candidate Joe Coors declared his opposition to 3A & 3B, Fritzler and her husband cast their first ever votes for a Democrat: Congressman Ed Perlmutter. “JeffCo schools deliver what they promise kids and their parents,” Shawna declared, “and I’ll be there to help them.” It was genuinely encouraging to stumble across Democrats and Republicans who have learned to like and respect each other — working in common cause. Now, if we could only bottle those spirits, brewed here in Colorado, and dispatch a case of it to every office in Washington? I can dream, can’t I?

Imitation may truly be the sincerest form of flattery, but a rush to next year’s ballot box on the part of Colorado governments and school districts that missed this year’s YES wave may get the back of voters’ hands. It is more compelling to ask for help when times are tough, harder to convince taxpayers of desperation when they are flush. How’s that for a conundrum?