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Senate Ed gets into the weeds

Thursday roundup
Higher ed bills advance
For the record

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 8-0 approval to the least-liked bill of the session, House Bill 10-1369.

That’s the 2010-11 school finance bill, which would cut state support of education by 6.3 percent, a reduction that seems unavoidable because of the state’s weak revenue picture.

Committee members echoed the unhappy comments made earlier as the bill went through the House:

“I think someone needs to say it’s a sad day when we’re cutting education,” said chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, who’s Senate prime sponsor of the measure.

“This is the most horrible aye [vote] I’ve ever cast,” said vice chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, never one to hide her feelings.

“This is criminal in many respects,” sighed Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The comments came as the committee voted. For most of the meeting before that, panel members delved more into the complex details of the bill than did their counterparts in the House.

One seemingly minor provision got special attention. A primary goal of the bill is ensuring that all districts receive an equal percentage cut – the 6.3 percent.

But a handful of the state’s 178 school districts – seven, to be exact – have higher-than-average local revenues and therefore receive relatively small amounts of state aid. As currently written, HB 10-1369 would force those districts to temporarily reduce local revenue in order to realize overall cuts of 6.3 percent.

(The districts are Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit.)

That idea unsettled some committee members, because doing that would effectively mean taking away extra revenue that local district voters had approved in the form of mill levy overrides.

“I find this really distasteful,” said Bacon.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, also criticized the forced cut for the seven districts.

“You shouldn’t be surprised that we have to do amazing and weird things,” given the financial situation, quipped Hudak.

Members kicked around various ideas for changing the way the seven districts should take their cuts but reached no agreement except to work on an amendment for consideration when the bill is up for preliminary Senate floor consideration.

The committee also was reminded by a witness of a fact that’s often forgotten in the school finance discussion – school districts have bigger problems than just loss of state aid.

Wil Hatcher, former chief financial officer of the Academy 20 district in Colorado Springs, said that even as revenue is being cut, “We still have this continued mandate on the spending side” – pensions contributions, utilities costs and health insurance. “It’s a double impact in some school districts,” said Hatcher, because increases in those fixed costs sometimes are the same amount as cuts in state aid. (Hatcher’s affiliation was corrected on March 26.)

The committee also spent some time sorting through just exactly what the cuts total, a subject of considerable confusion in many quarters.

HB 10-1369 proposes a floor of $5.44 million in school total program funding for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, meaning state support couldn’t drop below that. Total program funding is the total of state aid and local revenues. (Even if HB 10-1369 is passed this year, the 2011 legislature could change the floor.)

That amount compares to $5.7 billion in 2009-10 total program approved by the 2009 legislature. That was reduced to $5.55 million by legislative action earlier this session.

Legislative economists estimate that full total program funding in 2010-11 would be $5.8 if the full Amendment 23 formula was applied.

Legislative staff fiscal note explaining HB 10-1369

Higher education bills advance

The House Education Committee Thursday unanimously approved three higher education bills:

• Senate Bill 10-079, which would allow Mesa State College to offer a limited number of graduate degrees. The college wants to offer nursing, education and criminal justice graduate degrees to meet local workforce needs. The bill has been on a fast track through the legislature, despite initial concern by the Department of Higher Education that such expansion should be delayed until after the higher ed strategic plan is finished.

• Senate Bill 10-088, which would allow community college students to pursue associate’s degrees with specific academic “designations,” similar to majors. The theory behind this bill is that allowing students to focus early on their interests will improve retention and make it easier for students to move on to four-year colleges. The bill, however, limits the number of designations that can be offered.

• Senate Bill 10-108, which would allow private and proprietary colleges to participate if they chose in the system of common core courses used by state colleges. Common core courses are transferrable between colleges. Private colleges would have to pay fees to cover the costs of course review. According to previous testimony, Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs is the institution most interested in this.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 10-111, which makes various changes in law governing the Charter School Institute, including allowing institute-governed charter schools to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services.

For the record

The full Senate gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-HB 1183, which would authorize a study of alternative school finance methods, and House Bill 10-1026, which would create a grant-funded incentive program for quality early childhood programs.

The House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 10-154, which changes accreditation rules for alternative schools, which serve very high percentages of at-risk students.

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

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