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Checks aren’t quite in the mail

State school districts got some good news Thursday when the House gave preliminary approval to an amended version of the school finance act. The House plan could shrink the $250 million cut districts faced in 2011-12 based on the version of Senate Bill 11-230 that was passed by the Senate.

The plan is based on assumptions about the amount of surplus revenue available when the current state fiscal year ends on June 30. Even if those assumptions prove true, most of the money wouldn’t go to districts until early next year.

Under the successful floor amendment proposed by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, $22.5 million would be taken from the State Education Fund and added to K-12 support when the 2011-12 budget year starts July 1.

That would make the maximum 2011-12 cut $227.5 million.

The plan then assumes that $67.5 million in surplus revenue will be available when the 2010-11 fiscal year ends. That amount would be formally earmarked for education after the state closes its books on Sept. 30 and then distributed to districts early next year based on enrollment and at-risk student numbers determined by the Oct. 1 student count and on the local property tax valuations that are made in December.

So, districts that gain enrollment, see increases in at-risk kids and/or whose local property tax revenues come in lower than expected would receive additional money, up to a total of $160 million statewide.

Because they can’t reliably plan on getting share of the $67.5 million, the House budget plan isn’t expected to be a factor in the district budgets that are being finished up now.

“We are in the unusual position of betting against new money, and that’s unprecedented,” said Jane Urschel, veteran lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards. “We’re in uncharted waters.” She added, “It is a brilliant proposal addressing the hopes of local districts [for more funding] and the fears of the executive and legislative branches of government” about spending more money on education than the state can afford.

Forecasters expect 2012-13 to be another challenging budget year, and the Hickenlooper administration has been pushing to keep state reserves and the State Education Fund at sufficient levels to provide a cushion in 2012-13 if needed.

The deal was proposed and brokered by Massey in long negotiations involving legislative leadership in both houses and the administration. House Democrats, who are in the minority and who felt left out of earlier Senate/House/administration negotiations, teamed with Massey, supported his plan and took some of the credit Thursday.

The changes in SB 11-230 will have to be accepted by the Senate after final House passage next, but Senate assent isn’t expected to be a problem.

The House action represents an important step in the school finance debate that started in February when Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $322 million cut in total program funding for 2011-12, sending shock waves through education circles.

It was a big day for education news on Capitol Hill. The State Board of Education named two finalists for commissioner (see story), and several education bills moved in committee or on the floor.

The Senate Education Committee voted 8-0 to recommend confirmation of Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia as director of the Department of Higher Education. Hickenlooper made a rare appearance in a committee room to show support for Garcia and add a general air of hilarity to the occasion.

The committee also voted 5-2 to pass House Bill 11-1254, which would create a grant program to help districts develop anti-bullying programs and also expand the legal definition of bullying. Although the measure’s impact would be somewhat limited, it has drawn enthusiastic report for several education and gay advocacy groups, and the hearing drew more than 20 witnesses, including several students who told personal stories of bullying.

The Senate Finance Committee passed Senate Bill 11-109, which would create a tax check-off for the state preschool program, and the final Senate gave final approval to House bill 1201, which is intended to help speed up educator licensing.

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