Second try $20M Denver Schools bill survives kill committee

In a near-overnight partisan flip-flop, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 3-2 today to pass a second effort at adjusting the amount of money Denver Public Schools puts into its employees’ pensions, thereby liberating $23 million to be spent on classrooms instead.

“I took some time to look at the numbers,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who voted against the same measure last week.

“We’re moving fast and there’s been a lot of bills these past couple days, but I was able to look at it over the weekend, and I realized this is about treating all of our school districts equally across the board,” he said.

Hill wasn’t the only member of the Senate State Affairs Committee to switch his vote. In fact, every single member flipped from last week and now Democrats have voted against the bill.

“I got some new information just as I was walking in, the message being that there are more complicated politics behind this between the local school district and the teachers’ union. That wasn’t the message when it was first introduced … so I want to get more information before fully committing to the bill,” said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster.

“The union is concerned about where the savings will be spent and if it will really be spent on teachers and classrooms,” Ulibarri explained, adding that he’s still in favor of what he calls the “straightforward policy” that would change DPS’s retirement contributions from 13.75 percent to 10.15 percent, bringing the district in line with the rest of the state.

Hill, on the other hand, said that while his broader concerns about PERA remain, he’s not worried about how DPS spends the retirement windfall.

“I want to promote this idea that we should trust our local school districts. They’re the ones making the decisions, and I believe we should give them more control and autonomy rather than less,” Hill said. “I’m still concerned that PERA has this $26 billion in unfunded liabilities. We need to be more thoughtful about how we deal with that, but this inequitable treatment is not the way to solve the problem.”

Indeed even if DPS was required to continue contributing to their employees’ retirement at the higher rate, it wouldn’t impact PERA overall because the DPS plans are still in a separate and now much better funded division.

The Denver Post reported that Republicans previously voted against the measure in an effort to make U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet look bad before his 2016 re-election bid. Bennet was the DPS superintendent who merged the district’s retirement plan with PERA.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who sponsored the successful second attempt at the “PERA true-up” was tight-lipped about the politics at play.

“I am more charming than the previous sponsor,” he said and laughed. “Or maybe they liked my tie.”

The measure now heads to the floor, where Steadman said he is hopeful it will pass.

Image by Carissa Rogers