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Flap dooms Fort Lewis tuition bill

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, has learned that you mess with a college’s budget at your peril.

A controversy over Native American student tuition at Fort Lewis College – which really is a bureaucratic fight about money – has forced her to withdraw her bill to change how the state pays for such students, creating a $1.8 million cut for the college.

Middleton announced at a Capitol news conference on Friday that, “I will kill this bill.” The measure, House Bill 10-1067, is on the House Education Committee calendar for Monday afternoon.

“This was never meant to be a direct impact on Native Americans,” said Middleton, who blamed part of the controversy on “misleading” media coverage. “I want to set the record straight.”

Under the terms of an early 20th century treaty, Colorado must provide free tuition to Native American students at Fort Lewis, whether they’re Colorado residents or not. There are about 650 non-resident Native Americans at the college and a much smaller number of residents.

The problem was created by early 21st century budgeting techniques. While the legislature sets limits on how much resident tuition can increase in a year, college boards are free to charge whatever they want for out-of-staters, even if it’s higher than the actual cost of educating those students. Colleges use the extra money to cover other budget needs.

In the case of Fort Lewis, non-residents who aren’t Native American pay the full freight $16,060 a year) with their own money or scholarships, but the state treasury has to pick up the cost for Native Americans.

Middleton’s bill, which originated with the Department of Higher Education, would have allowed the state to reimburse Fort Lewis at the actual cost of instruction, to be determined by DHE but estimated at $13,271 a year.)

A legislative staff fiscal analysis pegged the reimbursement for non-resident Native Americans at $10.4 million. Using cost of instruction would have cut that amount to $8.6 million, a $1.8 million savings for the cash-strapped state budget but a loss for hard-pressed Fort Lewis, which is facing additional cuts in other state support.

The state has had to reduce the amount of work-study money it provides to students statewide to cover its reimbursements to Fort Lewis.

Middleton also said, “They [Fort Lewis] were unwilling to come to the table and negotiate.”

Asked if she thought Fort Lewis backers had used the Native American issue as a “wedge” tactic to win a budget battle, Middleton paused to frame her answer and then said, “I would suggest that may have played into it.”

Both Middleton and Rico Munn, DHE director, seemed peeved by the whole affair. “I think it’s very unfortunate the way her bill has been characterized,” Munn said at the news conference.

Asked the “wedge” question, Munn said, “I’m not going to try to characterize it.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who observed the news conference, said, “I firmly disagree” with the wedge characterization.

Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the state Commission of Indian Affairs, said, “It has never been about the state taking away” anything from Indian students.

In a later telephone interview with EdNews, Fort Lewis administrator Steve Schwartz said, “We felt that the bill was not workable.” Schwartz, vice president for business and finance, said, “We’re willing to talk about the Native American [tuition] waiver,” adding, “The state needs to have some way to limit the waiver.” But, he said, the college wanted a backfill of the $1.8 million loss.

Schwartz added, “The time to look at the Native America waiver is as part” of the higher education strategic planning process, due to kick off at a meeting next Wednesday. (Lots of people these days are saying various higher ed problems should be kicked into that process.)

The broader higher ed budget fight will waged in the Joint Budget Committee. The Ritter administration has proposed rolling back state support of colleges to 2005-06 levels, wiping out “catch up” funding increases some colleges, such as Fort Lewis, have gained since then.

The introduction of Middleton’s bill a few days ago was followed by somewhat breathless media reports, such as “A liberal arts colleges is being threatened with cuts in its free tuition program for Native students” and  “Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would cut $1.8 million in funding each year for Native American students attending Fort Lewis College in Durango and could violate a 99-year-old Indian treaty.”

According to the Durango Herald, more than 200 people attended a protest meeting at the college last Wednesday, and more than 150 students were planning to come to Denver Monday to protest. (By the way, Durango was snowbound on Friday, the college was closed and some mountain passes in the region were closed.)

Charter institute bill introduced

A measure to makes changes in the Colorado Charter School Institute was introduced Friday by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and 13 bipartisan cosponsors from both houses.

Senate Bill 10-111 would allow a institute charter school to join a board of cooperative education services (giving them access to special education services), launch of study of whether institute charters could be designated as local agency agencies (giving them certain status under federal law), give the institute more flexibility with facilities funding and repeal some reporting requirements by the institute to local school districts.

Sponsor makes lukewarm endorsement of tax-study resolution

The House Friday approved Senate Joint Resolution 10-002, which commissions the University of Denver to do a comprehensive study of state and local tax systems.

Estimated cost of the study is $750,000, to be raised from private funds. The resolution was pushed through in the session’s early days to make it easier for DU to raise the money. A report is due to the 2011 legislature.

One cosponsor, Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, gave the bill an oddly backhanded endorsement, saying, “In all honesty I would tell you I have concerns. … Please vote your conscience. … If it’s partisan in any way it will be a waste of time.”

Several Republicans did just that and voted no in the final 40-24 tally. (The Senate passed the measure 34-1, with only Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, voting against.)

The study is expected to be coordinated by DU’s Center for Colorado’s Economic Future, which is run by Charlie Brown, the respected former director of the Legislative Council staff.

But, some of the conclusions of prior DU research reports on immigration, constitutional reform and the state economy don’t exactly align with GOP orthodoxy. Those studies were done by a different DU arm, the Strategic Issues Program.

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