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School finance panel’s focus questioned

A veteran lawmaker Tuesday questioned – politely – members of the School Finance Interim Committee about why they hadn’t taken on the big issues of school finance during a summer of meetings.

Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada

Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada

As another day-long session of the panel drew to a close, Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, rose to say, “I’m a little taken aback and saddened” by what the committee has been discussing. (The committee has just finished talking about a fairly narrow set of bills it might consider proposing to the 2010 legislative session.) “I’d hoped you guys would have a little bit meatier work.”

Benefield is not a member of the committee and sat in the audience Tuesday. She is, however, a longtime member of the House Education Committee and served on a 2005 school finance interim committee that produced a report of more than 100 pages. (Despite the effort, that study made little impact in the full legislature.)

Benefield spoke up a few minutes after Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, made another elephant-in-the-room comment. Scanlan, who is a member of the current interim panel, said, “We are moving further and further away from a thorough and uniform system,” referring to state constitution’s words about public schools. “The whole foundation we have to fund our schools is crumbling.”

Annual levels of K-12 spending may be mandated by Amendment 23, but the whole system is coming under increasing pressure, exacerbated by the recession. There’s been a long-term shift of school funding from local taxes to the state, squeezing other state programs, and it now seems clear that many lawmakers and Gov. Bill Ritter will use a new, narrow interpretation of A23 when setting school funding for 2010-11. That likely will mean budget cuts for school districts.

It’s against that background that the interim committee was created by a resolution that empowered it “to study the funding for students in public schools statewide, to determine necessary modification to the ‘Public School Finance Act of 1994’ to fund education reform, to analyze the needs of public school facilities throughout the state and to determine appropriate funding factors and formulas and the allocation of resources that will ensure that all students in public schools in the state are receiving a thorough and uniform education.”

But, it’s also the funding crisis that seems to have discouraged the committee away from proposing any big-picture ideas.

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora

In response to Scanlan’s comments, chair Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, said: “There’s not much we can do,” given the financial situation. And, after Benefield spoke, Middleton said, “There are no new dollars now.”

The only two major ideas under consideration by the committee have been floated by Middleton. The first would create a new system of funding for small-enrollment districts, allowing them to choose guaranteed levels of funding for set period as a way to minimize the disruptions caused by declining enrollments under the current per-pupil formula that applies to all districts.

Her other suggestion would create of  “cost-of-doing-business” factor that would be used to adjust state aid for certain districts. The current finance system has a factor that weights district aid based on the cost-of-living index for their employees. The new factor might include a wider range of district costs.

Other, smaller ideas under consideration by the committee include:

Creating incentives for smaller districts to save money by sharing administrative services.

More state support for district technology needs and for online learning programs.

An incentive program to help districts create student-based funding formulas.

Change in the at-risk definition for first, second and third graders.

Revamping a state program of awards to successful schools.

Requiring school districts be more transparent in financial reporting to the public – something that’s shaping up as a Democratic co-option of a GOP idea that was defeated last year.

The committee also is considering making proposals that wouldn’t kick in into after the state’s budget picture improves. Those include changing the finance formula to provide more money for at-risk students, and creating a more accurate system of allocating at-risk funding for charter schools.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Another at-risk idea that’s apparently going nowhere fast is a system for giving incentive funds, or rewards, to schools with significant numbers at-risk students but better-than-average student achievement. That was floated by Sens. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and Michael Johnston, D-Denver. They presented several versions of that scenario.

That committee chewed on that for a long time, with other Democrats systematically nibbling away at the idea. Why provide money to schools that are working when the money’s needed by those that are struggling, they asked.

Later in the afternoon, when the panel was making a list of bills for legislative staffers to draft, King read the handwriting on the wall and said, “You don’t have to bother.”

The committee will vote Oct. 1 on which bills it wants to submit to the full legislature. Individual members are free to introduce bills on their own, subject to the legislature’s five-bill-a-person limit.

Do your homework

Committee website, with meeting summaries and background materials