The House Education Committee Wednesday gave 12-0 approval to a bill that’s intended to create a way for state colleges to raise cash from out-of-staters to pay for merit scholarships for top Colorado students.

Colorado CapitolAcross the hall in the Capitol basement, the House Local Government Committee killed a bill that was sparked by conflict between the Douglas County school board and citizen groups.

The scholarship bill, introduced only on Tuesday, is a “do-over” measure drafted after a proposed $3 million for merit aid was stripped from the main 2013-14 budget bill because of a dispute over whether undocumented students would be eligible for the scholarships.

House Bill 13-1320 doesn’t carry any funding. Rather it would allow state colleges and universities, with certain restrictions, to raise limits on the number of out-of-state students they enroll.

The theory behind the bill is that increasing the number of non-resident students – who on average pay $13,300 more a year than Colorado students at four-year schools – will allow tapping some of those funds to pay for the merit scholarships.

The bill “creates more money because they pay a higher rate,” said sponsor Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs Republican who’s House minority leader. His partner on the bill is House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder.

“Does anything more need to be said? Two leaders, vote yes,” Waller joked.

State-funded merit scholarships were scrapped a few years ago because of state budget cuts. (The state still provides funding for need-based aid.) Administrators, particularly at the University of Colorado, complain that universities in other states are luring top Colorado students with hefty aid packages. “The recruiting landscape has become extremely competitive,” Kevin McLennen, CU-Boulder admissions director, testified.

The bill is still under construction, primarily because it contains no descriptions or standards for what the merit scholarships would look like. Backers of the bill are in negotiations with the Department of Higher Education about adding some detail to the bill. Next stop for the measure is House Appropriations.

By the way, the merit scholarships would be available to undocumented students.

Learn more about the bill in this legislative staff summary.

Inauspicious day for executive sessions bill

Wednesday was an unlucky day in the local government panel for House Bill 13-1313, a bill that would have changed state open meetings law. The measure was prompted by the concerns of some Dougco citizens that the school board is using executive sessions improperly.

Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, said the board last year spent half its time in executive session, much more time than in past years. “I have witnessed on too many occasions the important decisions being made behind closed doors.” Under state law only personnel matters, real estate deals and consultations with lawyers can be held in closed-door meetings.

Susan Meek of the group Strong Schools Coalition also testified for the bill. Brenda Smith, head of the AFT-affiliated Dougco teachers union, attended the hearing but didn’t testify. (The union has its own set of conflicts with the conservative school board.)

As originally drafted, the measure would have required that all executive sessions be recorded; current law requires recording but allows it to turned off when elected officials are in private meetings with lawyers. If citizens had concerns about an executive session, they could ask a judge to review the tape. The bill also would have required that elected bodies keep a log of how much time was spent on different issues discussed in private.

Because the bill would have applied to all elected local government bodies – county commissions, city councils and other groups as well as school boards – it drew opposition from a couple of powerful interest groups, Colorado Counties Inc. and the Colorado Municipal League. The Colorado Association of School Boards also had issues with the bill. There were concerns that the measure would have diluted the principle of attorney-client confidentiality.

Facing those headwinds, sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, offered an amendment that stripped the recording provision and retained only the time-keeping requirement.

Some committee members also were concerned about the attorney-client privilege issue, and others wondered why the dispute required a statewide solution.

“It sounds like this is a local issue. We can’t legislate trust for Douglas County,” said Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora and committee chair.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said the two citizen groups “frankly represent a stark minority of voters in our county” and suggested they seek a solution in court, not in the legislature.

A motion to advance the bill failed on a 5-8 vote, with a coalition of Republicans and Democrats voting no. The measure then was postponed indefinitely on a 7-6 vote.

Alternative schools accreditation bill moves on

House Education voted 13-0 to pass Senate Bill 13-217, a seemingly technical measure that could have important implications for school districts working to raise low state accreditation ratings.

The bill would allow the State Board of Education to adjust how the performance of students at alternative education campuses affects district accreditation levels. Such campuses, which have special status under state law, typically serve very high percentages of at-risk students, such as dropouts, teen parents and students under court supervision.

The state sets different rating standards for alternative schools than for other schools. But currently the performance of alternative school students isn’t weighted any differently when rolled into a district’s rating.

Some districts have been concerned that current system inappropriately drags down their accreditation ratings.