Who Is In Charge

Soda levy, other tax exemption bills pass

The Senate Wednesday gave final approval to nine bills that are projected to raise about $148 million in revenue for the battered state treasury.

The measures are backed by education groups because they believe cuts to state support of K-12 education will be deeper without the additional revenue. Even with the additional money, schools are facing cuts of at least $350 million in 2010-11.

The proposal of greatest interest to the public probably is House Bill 10-1191, which would eliminate a sales tax exemption on some soft drinks and candy.

Debate over the tax package has been partisan, ideological and very prolonged in committee rooms and on the floors of the House and Senate. The Senate took most of Wednesday for final passage, which is swift and routine for most bills. Democrats have argued that the bills, which repeal various tax exemptions, are a modest imposition on business to help maintain state services.

Minority Republicans believe that raising taxes is the wrong thing to do in tough economic times and also is unconstitutional. (Democrats are relying on a 2009 Colorado Supreme Court decision about the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights as the legal justification for changing the tax policies without voter approval.)

Some bills require House-Senate agreement on amendments, but the package basically is on its way to the desk of Gov. Bill Ritter, who proposed the package in the first place.

The governor and Democratic leaders have been pushing for enactment of the package by March 1 so that some revenue would be available for the current 2009-10 budget year as well as in 2010-11. (State budget years end June 30 and being on July 1.)

Republicans have warned that some of taxes are unenforceable and that the bills could be challenged in court.

In addition to soda and candy, the measures, House Bills 10-1189 through 1196 and 1199, change tax exemptions for direct mail advertising materials, energy used in industry, software, some online sales, food containers and pesticides, plus tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles and operating losses.

Speaking of tough issues

There’s another big bill that legislative leaders are trying to push through by March 1. That’s Senate Bill 10-001, the complex proposal to make the Public Employees’ Retirement Association solvent over the next 30 years. All teachers and many other education employees are covered by PERA.

The bill is wickedly complex, but its major element is reducing benefits for retirees, who now receive annual 3.5 percent benefit increases. (That provision often is called a “cost of living” benefit, but it isn’t tied to inflation or any other external indicator.) The bill would cut that benefit to 0 percent for one year and then basically set it as 2 percent thereafter. PERA says cutting that benefit is the major financial piece needed to set the system on the path to solvency.

The measure has the backing of the Democratic leadership, key Republicans and a coalition of employee groups. But, large numbers of individual retirees have complained loudly.

The bill has passed the Senate, and the House Finance Committee took its first cut at the measure Wednesday. The panel took testimony well into the evening (after having started at 1:30 p.m.), and then passed the bill to the House Appropriations Committee.

What’s important about March 1? That’s when the 2010 3.5 percent retiree increase is supposed to kick in. If the bill is passed and signed before that date, PERA will save big money to put in the bank, and retirees will be getting less money.

Higher ed panel having a hard time

Colorado’s colleges and universities usually get the worst of budget cuts, given that they don’t have the constitutional or other protections that shield other programs – sometimes – from cuts.

Higher education funding for this year and next is being patched together with federal stimulus funds, but the system faces cuts of more than $100 million in 2011-12.

Financial issues are one of the things being studied as part of the just-started higher education strategic planning effort (get details here).

The “sustainability” subcommittee assigned to consider finances also is supposed to come up with short-term ideas to help the higher ed system in 2011-12, ideas that can perhaps be proposed to the 2010 legislature.

Legislative leaders are holding up consideration of a proposal, Senate Bill 10-003, to see if the subcommittee comes up with anything. That bill would give colleges and universities greater flexibility in financial practices, student aid, construction and other areas. There’s also talk of legislation that would allow colleges to attain “authority” status and almost totally free them from state control. (The best example of an authority is University Hospital, which is a state entity but self-governing, and it receives no tax funding.)

The subcommittee held its second meeting Wednesday, but member were no closer to any specific proposals than they were a week ago.

“So where are we?” asked Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, as the sustainability group neared the end of its two-hour meeting.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere,” said Dick Monfort, a co-chair of the overall strategic plan effort and a member of the subcommittee.

The panel agreed to meet again Feb. 22 and discuss whether there are elements of the authority model that could be used to give colleges some short-term financial relief.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.