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What’s so hard about counting kids?

As long as their own kids get to school, most people probably don’t give much thought to school enrollment stats. What’s so hard about taking attendance, right?

But for other people – school district administrators – enrollment is a deadly serious business, because those numbers affect how much state aid a school district receives.

The Senate Education Committee learned a bit about the intricacies of enrollment as it wrestled for more than two hours Thursday afternoon with Senate Bill 10-008, a measure that merely proposes studying a different way for Colorado to count its schoolchildren.

The panel voted 7-0 to advance the bill, but not before some members questioned why it’s needed.

“I’m struggling with why this is necessary,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The current system “seems to have served us pretty well,” commented Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

Under that current system, Oct. 1 (with a few makeup days afterwards) is the magic day for Colorado schools. Districts work hard to get kids enrolled in school that day, because the day’s headcount determines state aid.

The single-day count has drawbacks. Districts that lose enrollment the rest of the year still get paid (sometimes) based on Oct. 1. Districts that gain students later don’t be reimbursed. More important, to some education advocates, is the concern that a single-day count gives districts no incentive to keep at-risk kids in school afterwards.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and committee chair, also noted a higher percentage of students today are mobile than in the past, perhaps making the once-a-year count outmoded.

(The legislature actually sets school aid every spring based on enrollment projections. Aid is supposed to be adjusted after the October count, but because of budget pressures the state didn’t fund to the count last year and isn’t expected to this year. Nobody brought up that little problem Thursday.)

Last summer a legislative study committee discussed the issue but settled for the proposal to study what’s called average daily membership, or the average number of days that each pupil is enrolled in school during the year. (Other states use that method or multiple count days or a different formula called average daily attendance.)

That panel wasn’t “ready to commit to a new system until they had more information,” said Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who’s carrying the bill in the Senate.

He also noted that “any change to the current system was met with so much resistance” during study committee hearings. It “is going to take some real thoughtful work on what the process will look like. … Without that there is going to be a great deal of resistance.”

Why resistance? Because any change in the count system has the potential to take money from some districts and give it to others. “There’s no intent to use this in any way to reduce funding,” Johnston said. “This is just authorizing a study.”

“’I think that schools are motivated more by money than keeping a kid in school,” quipped Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

In the end, Heath and Steadman voted for the bill but still expressed reservations.

The measure would require the Department of Education to contract with an outside group to study average daily membership and file a report by Jan. 15, 2011. The estimated $50,000 cost would have to be raised from “gifts, grants and donations.”

Things were speedier in the basement

The House Education Committee Thursday took only an hour and 15 minutes to work its way through five bills, passing all of them unanimously.

Of most interest was House Bill 10-1036, which would set up a three-year schedule for school districts to put financial information such as budgets, check registers, salary schedules and investments online for public access.

Republicans have been conducting a mini-campaign to make government transparency an issue, but an online transparency bill died last year. HB 10-1036 is primarily a Democratic measure and was developed with the input of school districts, which now support the idea. Still, a somewhat different Republican measure, Senate Bill 10-091, also has been introduced this year.

Also passed by House Ed were House Bill 10-1028 (universal application for early childhood services), House Bill 10-1071 (qualification of CSU forestry employees), House Bill 10-1034 (easing qualifications for school speech/language pathology assistants) and House Bill 10-1037 (renewal of supplemental funding for online education).

No joy in this committee

The House Appropriations Committee took less than 10 minutes Thursday to pass Senate Bill 10-065 with only one no vote (Rep. John Kafalus, D-Fort Collins). The measure – which has to pass and be signed by Jan. 29 to take effect – would cut $110 million (about 2 percent) from state school aid in the current budget year.

The bill also specifies that the state won’t fund $20 million in enrollment increases recorded in the Oct. 1 count last fall (see above).

As she did before a Senate committee last week, Colorado Education Association lobbyist Karen Wick urged defeat of the bill, saying school districts need the money and “We also see this as a violation of Amendment 23,” the constitutional school funding formula.

Asked by Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, if the CEA would sue on A23 grounds if the bill passes, Wick didn’t say yes and didn’t say no. “The legislature really has to take some action first.”

“There’s a debate about whether this bill violates Amendment 23,” said Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, adding that the problem “was entirely predictable for years” because of legislative restrictions and past legislative tax cuts. “We don’t have the money to pay our bills, so we have to get out of paying our bills.”

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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