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Cary Kennedy’s balancing act

COLORADO SPRINGS – State Treasurer Cary Kennedy walked a fine political line in a speech Friday, defending the orthodox interpretation of Amendment 23 while avoiding criticism of Gov. Bill Ritter, whose proposed 2010-11 budget takes a new view of the amendment.

Kennedy, one of the primary authors of A23, spoke before a friendly audience at the annual Colorado Association of School Boards convention in Colorado Springs.

“I want to set the record straight,” Kennedy said, referring to questions about where she stands on Ritter’s cuts.

“I don’t believe the state can make these cuts without violating Amendment 23,” she added, to the applause of some 1,000 people in a Broadmoor Hotel ballroom.

But wait, there was more.

“I respect the work the governor and the General Assembly are doing to balance the budget. … There are some new realities in the budget, and these proposals came forth because they had to.”

Kennedy noted that while she has an opinion on the matter, it may ultimately be up to the courts to decide.

While some education interests, primarily the Colorado Education Association, are politely opposed to Ritter’s proposed cuts, there seems to be a general air of resignation about the issue among other groups and at the Statehouse. A budget analyst told lawmakers at a Capitol hearing Thursday that they may have no choice but to accept the governor’s plan (see story).

School districts across the state are facing cuts in state aid of nearly 2 percent in the current budget year and of more than 6 percent in 2010-11.

Passed by voters in 2000, the A23 formula requires state aid to schools to increase annually by the rate of inflation, student enrollment and a 1 percent bonus. (The bonus expires after the 2010-11 budget year – a piece of future bad news for schools.)

In the current budget year, for instance, school aid grew 4.9 percent while other state programs were being cut or, like the higher education system, held together with federal stimulus cash. (Kennedy made no reference to higher ed in her remarks.)

But, for 2010-11, Ritter is proposing that the A23 formula be applied to only about 75 percent of state aid (the per-pupil base), with cuts to additional funds that are used to equalize spending among districts. That would amount to a 6.1 percent overall cut from what state aid would otherwise have been expected to total in 2010-11. The state and school districts currently spend a total of about $5.7 billion a year on K-12 schools.

Although Kennedy said schools face “tough times, challenging times, frustrating times,” she said there has been good news in recent years, including a 2007 state law (and subsequent Colorado Supreme Court decision) that prevented scheduled reductions in local property taxes and a 2008 law that gives lawmakers greater flexibility in spending from the state’s main account, the general fund.

But, Kennedy warned that two proposed 2010 ballot measures pose fresh threats to school funding. One would put tight limits on property taxes while the other would severely limit government debt, threatening the Build Excellent Schools Today program, of which Kennedy was a prime backer.

The proposals are an “opportunity for you people to step up” and fight for education funding, Kennedy said.

Ritter and Kennedy both face reelection next year. The governor is expected to have a tough race against former GOP Congressman Scott McInnis. Kennedy is likely to face Walker Stapleton, a little-known but well-financed GOP businessman who is a member of the extended Bush family.

Kennedy is supporting former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary. He’s challenging Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the post by Ritter.

In case you didn’t get the bad news

At a breakout session later Friday afternoon, members of the State Board of Education and education Commissioner Dwight Jones were on a panel that discussed current policy issues.

Member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District and the board’s newest member, had the unenviable task of outlining the budget situation.

“Don’t pretend that this is not going to hurt your communities and your students,” Schroeder said, predicting citizens “will be angry.”

She also noted, “Many of us believe this is going to be an ongoing challenge.”

And, Schroeder said, the $110 million cut expected in the current budget might not be the only financial pain districts feel this year. Deputy Commissioner Robert Hammond told EdNews that the costs of larger-than-predicted increases in free-and-reduced-lunch and in online students might have to be absorbed by districts. In a “normal” budget cycle, such increased costs would be covered by the legislature with a mid-year increase in state aid.

The CASB convention is one of the major annual get-togethers in the Colorado education world, drawing board members, superintendents, state officials, lawmakers, vendors and others for three days of training sessions, discussions, speeches and networking. This year’s convention program weighed in at 118 pages.

The convention has been held at the Broadmoor for decades. Using a luxury hotel drew a critical story on one Denver TV station, which questioned the choice of the venue in tight budget times.

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