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Partisan spat rocks House Education

Two surprise late-afternoon amendments ignited a partisan fight in the House Education Committee that ended with the sponsor walking out on his own bill. One of the amendments reintroduces the controversial issue of requiring school districts to promptly notify parents when teachers are arrested.

A higher ed financial disclose bill sponsored by Rep. BJ Nikkel (left) was supported Feb. 27 by CU regents Sue Sharkey and Jim Geddes.
A higher ed financial disclose bill sponsored by Rep. BJ Nikkel (left) was supported Feb. 27 by CU regents Sue Sharkey and Jim Geddes.
Robert Scheer

The fight over House Bill 12-1240, an otherwise routine cleanup of state education laws, ended up overshadowing the lengthy discussion and ultimate approval of a higher education financial transparency bill, which came up earlier during the committee’s four-hour meeting. (Click here for details on that discussion.)That measure, House Bill 12-1252, itself has some controversial elements, and the controversy quotient was increased with an amendment that would apply the bill’s requirements to all state colleges – including some private institutions.

Amendments bare partisan differences

HB 12-1240 started out as a grab-bag bill intended to clean up various parts of education law and was requested by the Department of Education.

But, the bill has what’s called at the Capitol a “broad title,” meaning it’s vulnerable to addition of amendments that the sponsors don’t necessary want. The title is “Concerning Statutory Changes to K-12 Education.”

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock / File photo
Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock

Sponsor Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, walked his fellow committee members through the 11-page bill’s 20 sections, a largely routine exercise. After half an hour of that, the mood in the room changed quickly after Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, introduced two amendments that Kerr didn’t know about.The first would allow the commissioner of education to subpoena school district records for any material that might have bearing on the CDE’s denying, annulling, revoking or suspending an educator license.

The second adds to the State Board of Education’s legal powers the ability “To promulgate rules concerning parental notification when a school employee is charged with or arrested for a criminal offense.”

The first amendment ignited the partisan debate; the second one is the latest twist in a long policy struggle that has involved the state board, the Colorado Education Association, a Denver District Court judge and the legislative Committee on Legal Services.

Several Democratic members of the committee raised questions about the subpoena amendment, wondering if that was an appropriate power for the commissioner of education and saying they’d like to hear directly from Commissioner Robert Hammond and the SBE about why the amendment is needed.

“I would really like to hear from the commissioner. This is pretty substantial,” said Rep. Nancy Todd. D-Aurora.

But the bigger underlying issue seemed to be legislative courtesy. “This is completely new to me,” said Kerr. He said the amendments were “a complete surprise as the sponsor of the bill.”

That ignited a debate about the propriety of not letting a sponsor know a big amendment is planned. “We’re talking about common courtesy here,” said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton.The amendment passed on a 7-6 party-line vote.

Most of the committee members seemed to have exhausted their bile by the time second amendment came up for discussion, but it’s an issue that has a longer history.

SBE Chair Bob Schaffer, R-Fort Collins, has made a crusade out of requiring school districts to notify parents when school employees are arrested for certain crimes. (There are lots of twists and turns in this saga – see these stories in the Education News Colorado archive for details.)

Last December the legislative Committee on Legal Services effectively killed the SBE’s parent notice rule on a tie vote. (Being a joint House-Senate committee, Democrats and Republicans have equal membership on the panel. A member of the non-partisan legislative legal staff concluded that the board didn’t have the power to issue the parent notice rule.)

After the legal services vote, Schaffer said he’d look for a legislative sponsor to fix the issue to his liking. Asked by EdNews Monday, Murray said Schaffer didn’t ask her for the amendment and that it was just an issue that needed to be dealt with.

After the two amendments were approved on party-line votes, Republicans in the majority, the bill came up for a final vote.

When the roll call came around to sponsor Kerr, he passed. As the roll call continued, Kerr got up from the witness table where he’d been sitting and walked behind the committee table to grab his coat and some papers.

Committee aide Kristen Johnston again called out, “Rep. Kerr?” But Kerr continued heading for the exit without replying, and chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, simply said, “Excused.”Monday’s faceoff was the first serious partisan tiff in House Ed this session. But, given that 2012 is an election year and legislative districts have been redrawn, there’s a definite partisan undercurrent to this year’s session. For example, Kerr and fellow House Ed member Ken Summers, a Republican, are expected to contend for a Lakewood-based Senate seat this fall.

The original version of HB 12-1240 does contain some interesting policy nuggets, including deadline delays in creation of state graduation guidelines and specialized diplomas and for one of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids cost studies.

The bill also would allow CDE to accept private donations for implementation of the Senate Bill 10-191 education evaluation system. (The original bill, gambling on Colorado winning a federal Race to the Top grants, was limited to federal grants.)

That brought an acid comment from Solano, a skeptic of many education reform efforts. “Here we go again passing school reform with no state money to back it.”

She relentlessly quizzed CDE budget official Jeff Blanford about the cost of implementing educator effectiveness and dismissively referred to “private foundations – who’s running this state?” (Solano also has been a persistent critic of foundation funding for education reform initiatives.)

HB 12-1240 still has to go through the House Finance and Appropriations committees and the House floor. If survives those reviews, it still face the Senate, where the Democratic majority likely will pay special attention to a bill scarred by partisan fights in the House.

Higher ed transparency bill gains a big amendment

HB 12-1252 was supposed to be the committee’s big act Monday, and it did consume more than two hours of hearing time.

As originally drafted, the bill would require the University of Colorado and Colorado State University systems, the University of Northern Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines to post revenue and spending information online, including detailed information about faculty salaries, benefits and grants.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. BJ Nikkel, R-Loveland, and is modeled on successful previous legislation she sponsored to require online reporting by various state agencies and by the Department of Transportation. (See state transparency site here.) But the requirement for reporting detailed information on faculty members goes beyond her previous bills.

Most of the witnesses who testified, including a representative of the conservative Independence Institute, supported the bill, although lobbyist James Cole, who represents the School of Mines, opposed it. (Other higher ed lobbyists have concerns with the bill.)

Republican CU regents Jim Geddes and Sue Sharkey also supported the bill as individuals, and Sharkey said she plans to propose a resolution supporting the bill at the next regents’ meeting.

A lot of the witnesses beat up CU, and other state campuses got scant mention. (CU has been under media fire recently for big raises given to top administrators at the Boulder campus.)

Lobbyist Greg Romberg, who represents the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association, noted that all the information referenced by the bill already is public record. (Metro State has a document on its website listing faculty salaries by name.)

A legislative fiscal analyst put the startup costs of the bill at $1 million – an estimate Nikkel disputed – and higher education institutions are resisting the bill because of that.

There soon may be more colleges opposing the bill. Massey proposed – and the committee passed – an amendment that would extend the requirement to all colleges whose students receive College Opportunity Fund stipends. That includes smaller state colleges, community colleges and private institutions such as the University of Denver and Regis University.

The bill passed on a 10-3 vote, with three Democrats opposing, and it next goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

Held over for another day

In the Senate Monday final consideration of Senate Bill 12-015, the undocumented students tuition bill, was laid over until March 5.

On the House floor, Massey successfully moved to have House Bill 12-1043 sent back to House Education. The bill proposes a new system under which school districts would pay college tuition for high school seniors who need less than a full load of classes to graduate. The bill has been plagued with problems, particularly cost issues, and Massey said it needs more work. It’s sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, who’s not an expert on education issues.

And Massey announced on the House floor that his House Bill 12-1238, scheduled to be heard in House Ed on Wednesday, will be delayed until March 5. This is the bill that would rewrite state law on early literacy and encourage schools to hold back third graders who don’t meet certain reading benchmarks. Massey said Wednesday’s hearing, which will be squeezed in between the end of floor work and afternoon committee meetings, wouldn’t provide enough time to discuss the bill.

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

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