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School finance done despite Senate feud

The Senate Tuesday evening approved yet another version of the 2009-10 school finance act, but not before Republicans lambasted the Democratic majority for supporting an “irresponsible” bill. The House approved the compromise with less fuss, making the bill a done deal.

The latest chapter in the saga of Senate Bill 09-256 started Monday morning, when the Senate rejected the first conference committee report on Senate Bill 09-256, forcing House and Senate negotiators back to the table.

A few hours later, the conference committee approved a tweaked proposal for consideration by the two houses.

The key issue with the bill has been whether there should be a $110 million reduction in the overall increase in state aid to K-12 schools next year. The Senate proposed a $150 million cut, to help temporarily preserve the solvency of the State Education Fund. An early House version proposed a $110 million cut, but that was stripped on the floor.

The conference committee initially proposed giving school districts the $110 million – but to tell them it can’t be spent until Jan. 6, 2010, after the Joint Budget Committee has reviewed December revenue forecasts and decides if further state budget cuts are needed.

The revised proposal approved 4-2 by the committee Tuesday afternoon puts that date back to Jan. 29, 2009, and would designate the full legislature, not the JBC, as the body to decide whether the money should be held back.

The Senate spent half an hour Tuesday evening squabbling over the latest plan.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “Members, we changed nothing. All we did was move the date.”

King, who warned that not trimming the K-12 increases would lead to serious higher education cuts in 2010-11, moved to stick to the original Senate version but lost that motion.

Other Republicans picked up King’s song, but to no avail. The Senate voted 20-15 to adopt the second conference committee report, and then 21-14 to readopt the bill. Lame-duck Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, voted against the committee report but for the bill. He then asked his name be removed as a cosponsor. Several reform-oriented aspects of the original bill had Groff’s backing, but most didn’t survive once the bill reached this House.

As it settled out, the bill is pretty much the House’s creation, and representatives approved the second conference committee report.

Representatives had voted 65-0 Monday evening to repass the original compromise.

The committee proposal still includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and gives charter schools a small victory on facilities funding. The proposal accepts the House’s modest proposal for at-risk incentive funding (in contrast to the Senate’s original, expansive plan) and wouldn’t tinker with school funding formulas, which the original Senate version did, to the advantage of some school districts and the disadvantage of others.

The “escrow” proposal for the $110 million has a number of attractions for the legislature and advocacy groups interested in the debate.

– It lets the legislature avoid for now the issue of possibly violating Amendment 23 by trimming the increase in overall education spending. But, it also gives the legislature the option of taking back the money later – before it’s been spent – if the state’s revenue situation deteriorates further.

– It gives school districts the full amount of funding they feel A23 calls for – but allows them to keep that money off the table when setting or negotiating salaries for next school year. (Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver and conference committee chair, made clear during the conference committee meeting, “Districts should be on warning … districts should not put this in employment contracts.”

The committee proposal also includes a provision that would require the $5 million in charter school facilities funding be paid in 12 installments. There’s been endless debate over that issue since the $10 million in charter facilities funding originally in the 2008-09 budget was cut earlier this session.

The legislature could have to face further cuts, perhaps including in school spending, well before next January. The next formal state revenue forecast will be issued in late May, and it’s widely felt that bad numbers could trigger the need for a special legislative session this summer to cut the budget further.