This story was updated on March 22 to add additional information about the possible impacts of the amendment added Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill that proposes a major shift in the way Colorado funds K-12 education.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

But approval came only after passage of an amendment that increases the bill’s price tag by about 20 percent, an issue certain to be revisited when the bill reaches the Senate floor, which probably won’t happen until April Fool’s Day at the earliest.

Senate Bill 13-213 is in a situation much like a car that has had major work done in one body shop and now is being towed to another garage for more work.

The committee vote came at the end of the third meeting the panel has held this week on the measure, which is sponsored by Democratic committee members Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder. The bill is considered the most important education legislation of the 2013 session, and Johnston calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize how Colorado pays for it schools.

Johnston and Heath have been working on the bill for more than a year and have held scores of meetings with education interest groups and others to discuss the goals of the proposal.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed. (Friday is the deadline for ballot proposals to be filed.)

The central feature of the plan is a significant shift of funding to districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners. That would benefit districts like Denver and Aurora. Large districts with a lower concentration of such students, such as Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Jefferson County, would receive smaller increases in per-pupil funding.

That emerged as a major issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican members of Senate Education expressing worries about the bill’s impact on medium to large suburban districts with smaller concentrations of disadvantaged students.

That debate came to a head Thursday afternoon with an amendment proposed by Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Her proposal was opposed by Johnston and Heath, but its passage probably ensured that the bill got out of committee.

Todd, a retired teacher and veteran legislator, said she was concerned by the “disparity” between districts like Aurora and Cherry Creek in the bill. “All districts have to feel like they’re coming away from the table with a win for their children.”

She proposed an amendment that essentially would bring such districts up to the statewide per-pupil average with a “bonus” payment every year, even if the bill’s formula set them at a lower amount. That would raise the estimated $950 million cost of the bill by an additional $220 million a year, according to Johnston. (However, the impact of the amendment hasn’t been fully calculated, and some observers think the cost could be different.)

The amendment would set a per-student “floor” of $7,495 for all districts, according to Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project, who has been following work on the bill.

Johnston opposed Todd’s amendment, but its passage might have been the price he had to pay to get the bill out of committee. “It would be very difficult for me to vote yes on the bill as it is now,” Todd said before the vote. Approving her amendment would “keep the conversation alive. … I want to get this bill out of committee.”

“The hard question is where we are you going to finding the $220 million,” Johnston said. Johnston and his allies have said the proposed ballot measure probably can’t exceed $1 billion and have a chance at voter approval.

Republicans voted yes before they voted no

Todd’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote, with Todd, chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and all four committee Republicans voting for it.

Those Republicans – Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker – essentially voted for the bill before they voted against it. By supporting the amendment they voted to make the bill richer than Johnston’s version. But they all were no votes on the final motion to send SB 13-213 to the Senate floor.

They cited concerns about the proposal’s costs and that it doesn’t contain enough “reform.” The bill was sent to the floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. That wasn’t necessarily a good sign for Johnston, who in the past has relied on GOP votes to pass such key measures as Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law.

There had been talk that the bill would be heard on the Senate floor Friday, but Johnston said senators need time to study it and that the bill won’t be debated until April 1 at the earliest. Fresh calculations of the district-by-district impacts of the amended bill aren’t expected until the middle of next week.

He also said, “Sen. Todd is going to have to help me think about how we balance the budget. I’ll sit down with Sen. Todd and figure out a compromise.”

If the bill passes on the Senate floor during the first week of April, it will face a tight timeline to get through the House, because the legislature has a drop-dead adjournment deadline of May 8.

A weird opening act

Before it even got to school finance, Senate Education burned up an hour on Senate Bill 13-201, which proposes to designate shelter dogs and cats as the official “state pets.”

The bill, proposed by a group of Walsenburg middle school students, follows a traditional pattern of students proposing state fossils or whatever. Such bills usually are feel-good measures that allows lawmakers to compliment students on their interest in the legislative process.

But SB 13-201, sponsored by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, actually had opposition.

Paid lobbyist Dan Anglin, representing the Colorado Association of Dog Clubs and the Colorado Pet Association (which includes pet stores), urging the committee to defeat the bill, saying it “discriminates” against pets available at outlets other than shelters.

The committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill on to the Senate floor.

Breakfast after the bell still alive

Speaking of feel-good bills, the breakfast-after-the-bell proposal had its first Senate hearing Thursday in the health committee.

The bill, pushed by a variety of child health and other advocacy groups, proposes that all students in certain high-poverty schools be served free breakfast after school starts. Many school districts have complained that the bill could force startup costs on financially strapped schools, and the bill was amended in the House in an attempt to ease some of those worries. (See this story for further details.)

Those amendments apparently didn’t calm everyone’s fears, and a string of district nutrition directors urged the committee to make further modifications to the bill. The health panel didn’t amend the bill further. It passed on a narrow 4-3 vote.