At campaign launch, ballot measure supporters stress economics

Supporters of a $950 million tax increase for K-12 public education publicly launched their campaign on Thursday by arguing that the tax is a smart investment that will eventually drive improved economic outcomes by producing a more skilled workforce.

Gov. John Hickenlooper addresses supporters of a $950 million tax increase for K-12 education at the campaign's official launch event.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Gov. John Hickenlooper addresses supporters of a $950 million tax increase for K-12 education at the campaign’s official launch event.

The campaign, which got off the ground quietly in June under the name Colorado Commits to Kids, officially filed the signatures it needs to get the measure on the November ballot earlier this month and has been working on honing a clear message to voters.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, who spearheaded the school finance reform legislation that complements the tax proposal and who has been the main public face of the measure, emphasized both the public outreach that occurred as the school finance reform proposal was developed and the continued outreach that will be needed to generate support for the measure.

“I want to invite you to rest for about 10 minutes after this, and then work your butts off for the next 82 days,” the Denver Democrat said, echoing some of his earlier promises of a robust and energetic campaign.

The campaign also recruited Mike Ferrufino, the general manager of the Spanish-language radio station KBNO and chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver, to represent business interests in developing a skilled workforce.

“Like any business, when you invest intelligently and correctly, you get amazing results,” Ferrufino said

Much of the debate centers around whether taxpayers should shoulder the nearly billion dollar burden of the proposal, but Ferrufino argued the sacrifice for individuals is small compared to the benefits of improved educational outcomes.

“Not much is needed from us,” Ferrufino said, saying that the average family would pay roughly an extra $2.50 a week towards the education tax.

Supporters and opponents disagree on how much the measure would change Coloradans’ overall tax burden compared to other states, with advocates arguing that even with the tax increase, citizens will still pay far less in taxes than they would elsewhere in the country.

“Some people say we can’t afford this,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told the crowd. “We [will] still [be] competitive with every one of our neighboring states and we’ll be able to say that we have the most robust, innovative education system.”

Historically, general tax increases for education have not fared well at the ballot box, with only two ballot measures related to education passing since the early 1990s. But Hickenlooper later told reporters that he believes that voter support for local tax increases for education indicates that there is a public willingness to increase spending on public education.

“Even last year, if you look at the mill levy increases, there were over a billion dollars, $1.2 billion of mill levy increases that pass, and that’s all real estate tax – that is a very disproportionate burden,” Hickenlooper said. “Do you want to just keep going on and doing mill levy after mill levy, or do you want to solve this on a statewide basis?”

The governor also argued that the current tax proposal is qualitatively different from previous tax-increase campaigns because it is coupled with a plan – laid out in SB-213 – that delineates exactly how the new revenue will be spent.

“When is the last time we tried something on this scale, a reform with specific details about how the money is going to be spent?” Hickenlooper said. “The previous efforts were, ‘let’s raise our taxes, and we’ll spend the money wisely.’ People don’t like that.”

Kelly Maher of Coloradans for Real Education Reform displays the school supplies the group claims could be bought with the funds an average family would be taxed under the proposed ballot measure.
Kelly Maher of Coloradans for Real Education Reform displays the school supplies the group claims could be bought with the funds an average family would be taxed under the proposed ballot measure.

Opponents of the ballot measure, who have organized under the group Coloradans for Real Education Reform, picketed across the street from the launch event at Green Mountain High School in Jefferson County. Using estimates that the tax would cost Colorado families an average of $250 a year, they displayed a table stacked with the school supplies they said a hypothetical family could buy with those funds instead.

“We need to reform the system first before we raise taxes on Colorado families,” said Kelly Maher, the executive director of the anti-tax group Compass Colorado. Maher argued that many of the provisions, like increased transparency on school-level expenditures, could be accomplished without new taxes using funds from the state education fund’s current surplus.

“The fact that they are holding these ostensible reforms hostage to a billion dollar tax increase is unacceptable,” she said.

But Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson dismissed the argument that an influx of new tax dollars won’t necessarily drive better academic outcomes, arguing that strategic investment in efforts like class size reduction, improved teacher training and longer school days.

“It’s not just that you disperse the funds in a random fashion,” Stevenson said. “I think it’s sophistry to say that money doesn’t make a difference.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede