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So many issues, so little time

The 2009 legislative interim committee on school finance Thursday got more than enough advice from two-dozen witnesses who made suggestions about what the 10-member panel should study.

“Any one of these things could keep us busy for the rest of the summer,” quipped brand-new Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who’s not on the panel but sat in on the five-hour meeting. (Recently appointed to fill a Senate vacancy, Steadman was a lobbyist for education and human-services groups.)

The hearing was a somewhat informal setup for the committee’s first official meeting on June 29 and was designed to gather opinions and suggestions from interest groups and others. Nearly 100 people (although the crowd thinned after lunch) packed the State Board of Education meeting room for the session in included “extra” lawmakers like Steadman, state board members, lobbyists, school district representatives, education think-tank types and agency and legislative staff.

Panel chair Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, said over the next couple of weeks committee members would informally discuss how to focus their work and what sort of advisory panel to form. A 2005 committee that studied the same issue had a single large group of advisors working with it. Middleton has talked about created four smaller groups of advisors this time, but several witnesses said Thursday that they preferred a single panel.

Those decisions will be made formally on June 29, Middleton said.

Witness comments and committee discussion raised a long list of suggestions, including:

More money for schools. The state can’t just “rearrange existing dollars,” said Renee Howell of the Colorado School Finance Project.

Creation of a stable system for financing schools. “When you are looking at revenue solutions sustainability has to be in the forefront of your thinking,” said David Hart, chief financial officer of the Douglas County Schools.

A thorough examination of the cost of the standards-based education envisioned in the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids.

Investigation of ways to tie funding to individual students, especially at-risk and special-needs children.

More time for teaching, including longer school days and years.

Increased spending on early childhood education.

Being sensitive to declining enrollment, which affects nearly two-thirds of school districts.

Greater efficiency, especially in cooperation among small districts.

Creation of incentives. “Local communities do need incentives to fund their schools,” said Bruce Caughey of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He and others suggested the state might match tax increases approved in local districts.

Managing the “cliff” that faces the state and schools in 2011 when Referendum C expires, federal stimulus aid ends and the Amendment 23 school-funding formula downsizes.
Close cooperation with other groups that are studying other aspects of state finances, especial a separate interim committee on overall state financial stability.
Romer and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, both probed the touchy issues of A23 and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

King said the committee needs to examine the issue of whether A23’s automatic spending increases apply to all types of state school aid, especially the so-called “factors,” which provide extra aid for small districts, those with lots of at-risk students and those with high costs of living for teachers. (This is a touchy subject for mainline interest groups and many Democratic legislators.)

“This is a fundamental issue,” King said.

Romer raised the issue of whether the legislature should raise education revenue by ending some tax exemptions, something he believes can be done without voter approval under the terms of a recent Colorado Supreme Court decision.

“I hope we step outside the box a little bit” and consider doing that in 2010, Romer said, rather than just relying on submission of a funding proposal to voters in 2011.

“This is a core question for this committee,” Romer said. Turning to King, Romer said, “I’m willing to put Amendment 23 on the table as part of that conversation.”

The last witness, fittingly, was Vody Herrmann, head of school finance at the Department of Education and widely acknowledged as the leading expert on the subject.

“Sustainable funding is the No. 1 issue,” Herrmann said, adding that lawmakers should break the habit of approving new education projects, funding them for a year or two and then cutting the funding but leaving the requirements on the books.

Yet another study panel may be on tap

While the interim committee was meeting in Denver, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, meeting at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, was having a different discussion about the future.

David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Educations, told commissioners that he and Gov. Bill Ritter are interested in drafting a new higher education master plan, a task he said that’s become more urgent given the bleak financial situation for colleges.

The state’s budget crisis forced legislators to cut higher ed funding back to 2005-06 levels, then use federal stimulus money to keep colleges at 2008-09 funding for the next two years. After that, the stimulus goes away.

Skaggs candidly acknowledged that college presidents are skeptical of the idea – they want some kind of fiscal fix sooner – and said discussions are continuing.
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