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School finance on the brain

Colorado legislators got hit from two sides Wednesday on one of the Capitol’s toughest and most complicated issues – school finance.

Volunteers prepare packets for delivery to lawmakers on Jan. 30. <em>Year of the Student photo</em>

Volunteers prepare packets for delivery to lawmakers on Jan. 30. Year of the Student photo

First, all 100 lawmakers were targets of a “meet-and-greet” blitz by volunteers from the Year of the Student Coalition, a grass-roots effort that’s putting pressure on the legislature to deal this year with school funding shortfalls.

Second, the 22 members of the House and Senate education committees got yet another briefing on the knotty financial issues they’ll have to help decide, this time from members of the Joint Budget Committee, the six people in the General Assembly who know the most about state spending.

Green T-shirts flood the Capitol

Year of the Student is an effort to persuade lawmakers “to use this session to address Colorado’s long-time failure to fund its schools, colleges and universities,” in the words of a coalition news release.

Started by Great Education Colorado, a school-funding advocacy group, the coalition now involves more than 150 organizations and has gathered more than 9,000 petition signatures, according to the group.

More than 100 volunteers clad in bright green T-shirts fanned out in the Capitol Wednesday morning to deliver information packets to all 100 lawmakers. The packets included letters asking lawmakers where they stand on adequacy of school funding, their willingness to explore all financing options and whether they agree the issue should be handled this year. Legislator responses will be published on the coalition’s website next month.

“This is just the beginning, but it’s a very good beginning,” said Lisa Weil, Great Education policy director. The coalition plans to follow up with a mid-February briefing for lawmakers.

Big funding issues laid out

Whether they address the adequacy of school funding or not, lawmakers will have to pass a bill this session to provide K-12 funding for the 2013-14 school year.

The House and Senate education committees will play central roles in crafting that bill, and members were briefed Wednesday on the key issues they face, which include:

Source of money: There’s an issue about whether funding increases next year should be paid out of the state’s general fund or from the State Education Fund, a dedicated account that can be used only for educational purposes. Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to rely on the education fund, but some lawmakers don’t want to drain that account.

JBC chair Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, noted the legislature will have the final say regardless of the governor’s proposal. “That’s a policy decision that will be made by the Joint Budget Committee and the General Assembly.”

Repairing the damage: Budget cuts in recent years have slashed an estimated $1 billion from what schools otherwise would have received. Hickenlooper’s plan makes up only a small amount of loss, and some lawmakers are talking about trying to do more.

Early childhood funding: Hickenlooper wants districts to devote about $30 million of the proposed increase to specific programs, mostly to early childhood spending. Several lawmakers are skeptical about telling districts what to do. “If we’re going to do this we should give the districts the control to do with the dollars as they want,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and a JBC member.

A recent law called the SMART Government Act requires legislative committees to make recommendations to the JBC about the proposed budgets for various state departments.

The House and Senate education committees have decided not to do that, noting that school funding is a special case and that recommendations can’t be made until later in the session.

“Since there are so many moving targets we decided not to make any recommendations at this point,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and chair of Senate Education.

The biggest moving targets include setting an inflation rate for 2013-14, a key part of the school finance formula. That forecast won’t be made until next month. Another key shoe to drop will be the next state revenue forecasts, which won’t be issued until March 18.

Don’t forget about the other school finance bill

Dealing with the annual school finance act is hard enough, but this year the legislature likely also will face a proposal to modernize the formula used to distribute school funding. It could be the year of two school finance bills.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is pushing that effort and wants to get a bill passed by mid-March. Given that timeline, there’s been a lot of speculation about when a bill will surface.

Johnston indicated Wednesday it could be another couple of weeks before that happens.

His strategy is to gain as much support for the bill as possible ahead of time in order to minimize extensive arguments over amendments after the bill is introduced.

Johnston has been making his case to groups around the state for months, but he’s got some key meetings on his calendar in the near future.

He was to meet with a group of school district finance officers Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to speak Friday to a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He’s also planning to make the case for his ideas to the Feb. 14-15 winter legislative conference of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

CASE and CASB are key constituencies to convince if a funding system overhaul is to be successful.

Whenever the bill is ready, it’s going to be a head-hurter for lawmakers. He estimated it will run to more than 100 pages. Johnston’s Senate Bill 10-191, the landmark and controversial educator effectiveness law, was a mere 33 pages long.