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Quick action urged on K-12 cuts

Lawmakers need to act quickly next year to make necessary cuts in state school aid, an analyst suggested Thursday to the Joint Budget Committee – and a host of other legislators.

The six-member JBC held its first staff briefing on proposed aid to K-12 schools for 2010-11, spending that’s threatened by the state’s fiscal crisis. The panel was joined by a dozen current or past members of the House and Senate education committees, who peppered JBC staff with questions and at times dominated the discussion.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed cutting nearly $300 million – basically a 6.1 percent across-the-board cut to all school districts – from the amount that state support would otherwise total in 2010-11 if school finance formulas were applied in the normal fashion. Total state and local school support is about $5.7 billion.

School aid grew 4.9 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10 because of the provisions of Amendment 23, which requires the annual amount of aid to grow by inflation, enrollment growth and a 1 percent bonus.

The A23 formula traditionally has been used with virtually all parts of state school aid, but Ritter is proposing it be applied only to what’s called “base” funding. Other multipliers known as the “factors,” used to equalize funding among districts relative to their costs, would be cut.

Some interests, primarily the Colorado Education Association, have raised alarms that such a move would be unconstitutional. But, many others in state government and the education community seem resigned to such a move. There wasn’t a peep about the constitutional questions during Thursday morning’s briefing.

JBC analyst Carolyn Kampman, in both her testimony and her briefing paper, told the committee that lawmakers need to act quickly on two issues next year so that school districts have adequate time to plan for cuts.

First, the legislature faces a Jan. 29, 2010, deadline to pull back $110 million in the current 2009-10 budget. School districts were told last spring not to spend their shares of that money until the 2010 legislature decided whether it needed it back.

“It’s a very short time frame to get a supplemental [a mid-year budget adjustment] passed,” she warned. “I think that the rescission should be higher, but that would be hard for districts.”

Referring to Ritter’s proposed cuts, Kampman’s briefing paper said, “If the Joint Budget Committee intends to include this proposal as part of its budget balancing plan for the General Assembly’s consideration, the committee should discuss this plan with leadership and members of the education committees to ensure that the necessary statutory changes can be enacted in a timely matter.”

Kampman said Ritter’s plan would require changes in school finance law. She also said, “You’re going to need to pass [the governor’s plan] unless someone else has a really good idea.”

Fretting about future financial demands

Analyst Bernie Gallagher, who teams with Kampman on education issues, briefed lawmakers on some of the potential costs of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the 2008 law that created a multi-year program of new content standards, new statewide tests, greater alignment of K-12 and higher education and other reforms.

The full program is a few years away from having an impact in the state’s classrooms, and an outside study of what it might cost has only just started and won’t be finished until the autumn of 2011.

Gallagher noted that the Department of Education has guesstimated that creation of a new, more sophisticated online testing system could cost up to $80 million, and that raised some lawmaker eyebrows.

“Why wasn’t this in the fiscal note?” asked JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, referring to the cost-estimate document attached to most legislative bills.

“There was no way to quantify it at the time,” Kampman noted.

“We understood there was going to be a big fiscal note” but that costs were to be nailed down later, said Sen. Chris Romer- D-Denver, a CAP4K sponsor.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and the legislature’s foremost critic of CSAP tests, said, “I’d like to know where they [the CDE] are going to get the money.”

“The department may just turn around and say, you passed the law, you figure it out” Pommer commented.

That part of the briefing ended with Pommer asking, “Do you have more to say about CAP4K, or have you shocked us enough?”

The JBC returns to K-12 spending on Dec. 11, when CDE officials will appear to answer questions about the 2010-11 budget. Judging from the number of questions lawmakers asked Kampman and Gallagher to relay to the department, it could be a long hearing.

JBC staff briefing paper on 2010-11 Department of Education budget

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