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School finance bill proposes $260 million cut

Wednesday roundup
Senate Ed’s struggle
For the record

The proposed 2010-11 school finance act introduced Wednesday is shorter than such bills in the past, but it’s definitely not sweet.

The measure, House Bill 10-1369, would cut state support to schools in 2010-11 to $5.4 billion, $260 million less than actual state support in the current 2009-10 budget. (The 2009-10 budget was cut in midyear by $130 million from what the 2009 legislature originally approved.)

The $260 million may or may not be the actual cut schools receive, depending on other things that may happen before the legislature adjourns in May, such as further changes in state revenues. Some observers expect the cut could climb to at least $280 million. A Joint Budget Committee staff analysis has warned lawmakers might need to plan for a cut of $500 million.

Compared to actual 2009-10 spending, the cut is in the neighborhood of 6 percent. When compared to what funding would have been under the full terms of Amendment 23, the reduction is more than 8 percent.

HB 10-1369 makes a legislative declaration that school funding needs to be cut, sets the $5.4 million “floor” and creates a new “factor” called the state budget stabilization factor, which the Department of Education would use to make equal percentage cuts to school districts. (The state school finance system includes several factors that are used to fine-tune aid to individual districts based on their unique costs. The bill would create a new factor that could be used to reduce aid.)

The bill also contains provisions for reduction of online funding and for handling a small number of districts that have very high local revenues.

The measure is sponsored by Reps. Christine Scanlan of Dillion and Jack Pommer of Boulder and Sen. Bob Bacon on Fort Collins. Pommer is chair of the Joint Budget Committee and Bacon is chair of Senate Education. All are Democrats. The bill will have its first hearing in the House Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

The school finance elephant in the room, of course, is Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000. In the past, the legislature has applied A23’s multiplier formula to all state support. The current interpretation by the governor’s office and many legislators is that A23 actually applies only to “base” school support, not to the additional aid generated by the factors, which is about 25 percent of total aid.

The school finance bill was introduced earlier in the session that has been the case in past years. That’s reportedly to get the measure out of the way before introduction of the main 2010-11 state budget bill, expected sometime in the next several weeks.

While education interest groups and most legislators don’t like that interpretation, they feel the state has no other choice during the current revenue crunch. The Colorado Education Association has taken a more orthodox interpretation of A23 and opposed the cuts in the current budget.

CEA lobbyist Karen Wick said Wednesday she didn’t know if the union would testify against HB 10-1369.

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

EdNews Budget Cuts Info Center

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard

Colorado legislators, lacking the political support or – more commonly – the money to make more sweeping changes, love to commission studies, launch pilot programs and start small programs funded only with “gifts, grants and donations.”

The phenomenon is particularly common with education-related proposals, and most such bills pass optimistically through the legislative process with little fuss.

Freshman Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, may have had that in mind late Wednesday morning when he told his Senate Education Committee colleagues that it probably would take only a few minutes to deal with House Bill 10-1183, of which he’s the prime Senate sponsor.

The bill would create a pilot program under which school districts could apply to the State Board of Education for permission to study alternative ways to finance school operations. State aid to school districts currently is based significantly on enrollment. Districts would continue to receive regular levels of state funding during the research, which is designed to gather data for use in later deliberations about reforming school finance, like perhaps basing it more on student competency.

Johnston’s prediction was proven wrong as the committee ground on for more than 90 minutes picking at various parts of the bill. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, did much of the picking. She was particularly concerned about a provision that would have allowed charter schools to apply directly to the State Board. (The committee ultimately approved an amendment requiring charters to ask permission of their authorizing school boards before applying.)

That issue sparked repeated exchanges between Hudak, who takes a more traditional view of school governance, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, a strong charter supporter who actually runs one.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedent” for charter autonomy, Hudak said of the bill’s original language. (The phrase “nose under the tent” also was used at one point.)

“Let’s give charter schools a chance,” countered King, who also noted, “It’s amazing to me that this [bill] came out of the House Education Committee … which tends to be [pause] different than what we are.” (He was referring to the fact that some Democrats on House Ed are suspicious of charters and other education innovations.)

Johnston had noted a moment earlier that House Ed passed the bill unanimously, with only modest amendments, and that the full House passed it with a lone no vote.

Johnston looked increasing irritated as things dragged out, slumping in his chair and frowning. Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, kept vainly warning the panel that they had another bill to hear, the lunch hour was waning and the next flight of committee meetings was nearing.

The amended bill finally passed 6-2, and the lobbyists headed for the exit, hoping to get a quick bite.

For the record

While lawmakers spent a lot of time Wednesday speechifying about St. Patrick’s Day and agriculture day, the House at least managed to get some floor work done, including final approval of House Bill 10-1335, allowing BOCES to operate school food services.

The House also gave preliminary approval to:

  • Senate Bill 10-008 – A study (yet another one) of the average daily membership method of determining school enrollment
  • Senate Bill 10-058 – Expansion of nursing teacher loan forgiveness program
  • Senate Bill 10-150 – Diversion of some state school lands revenues to school aid

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

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