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Questions raised about breakfast bill

Some members of the State Board of Education raised questions Friday about the “breakfast after the bell” legislation now working its way through the General Assembly.

The measure, House Bill 13-1006, would affect schools whose enrollment includes 70 percent or more students who are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Those schools would be required to provide free breakfasts for all students, regardless of individual eligibility.

Breakfast would have to be served after the school day starts, although schools could choose whether to serve meals in classrooms, a lunchroom or some other way.

The theory behind the bill is that students do better in class if they’re not hungry, that some students skip breakfast if it’s offered before school and that students will be more likely to eat if all others are eating, not just the “poor” kids.

Backers of the bill, led by the group Hunger Free Colorado, are pushing it as a “what’s not to like” proposal. A lengthy list of witnesses testifying during a House Education Committee hearing earlier this week praised the bill.

But a few questions popped up Friday during a SBE briefing on legislative issues.

SBE lobbyist Jennifer Mello noted, “There are concerns being expressed by many school districts,” especially about possible startup costs.

Board member Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, said she’d heard some of those concerns at a Colorado Association of School Executives meeting Friday. “They’re just not a bit happy with this. … They also see it as very much as an intrusion on local control.”

Neal wondered if the program could be made optional. (Actually, many schools can serve free breakfast to all students under existing federal regulations, some Colorado schools already are doing this and federal funds cover the costs.)

SBE chair Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, said, “My concern is about the academic time loss” when breakfast is served after the school day starts.

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, added, “That was the biggest concern I heard” but said districts she contacted are trying to work around that problem. “Some are ringing the bell a little early.”

Debora Scheffel, R-6th District, merely said, “I would really oppose this bill,” without elaborating.

For the moment the board is “monitoring” the proposal, which was approved this week by House Education and now is awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill would exempt schools with fewer than 100 students, schools in districts with fewer than 300 total students and schools that don’t participate in the federal school meal program.

Johnston works to rally support

With the 2013 legislative clock ticking – Friday was the 24th of 120 legislative days – chatter is intensifying about when the expected measure to reform the state’s school funding system will be introduced.

Lobbyist Jennifer Mello told the State Board of Education Friday, “The expectation is the school finance bill will be introduced next Friday.”

That introduction date of Feb. 8 also was mentioned by some people attending the Colorado Association of School Executives conference in Westminster.

Sen. Mike Johnston, the prime mover behind the idea, was the featured speaker Friday morning at the conference, where he got a warm reception.

Johnston has been crisscrossing the state for months, trying to build support for what’s expected to be a radical rewrite of the way Colorado distributes money for K-12 schools.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

The Denver Democrat’s was smooth and politically polished – he mentioned individual districts and administrators by name several times – and he told the audience of several hundred, “I am here not to ask you join this coalition but to lead this coalition.” Earlier he said, “Doing nothing is no longer an option.”

Johnston’s goal is a new school finance formula that addresses both the “adequacy” of funding and the “equity” of how it’s distributed. The plan involves a two-step process – a new formula approved by the legislature and additional school revenues approved by the voters next November, possible as much as $1 billion in new taxes.

“This new formula gets turned on only if the voters agree to turn it on,” Johnston said.

Details are still being hammered out, but the key elements of Johnston’s plan are:

  • Increases in base per-pupil funding
  • Funding of full-day kindergarten for all students and half-day preschool funding for all at-risk 4-year-olds
  • Adding more money for education of English language learners and additional funding for special education students
  • More emphasis on funding of at-risk students
  • Creation of an investment fund that districts could use to pay for such programs as longer school days
  • Supplemental state aid to districts with low property tax bases, and a requirement that rich districts with low levels of local spending contribute more to their budgets

Johnston’s presentation usually don’t include specific price tags for the components of his plan, and administrators around the state are waiting to see district-by-district projections of what the plan would do to their budgets.

But Johnston promised the CASE audience that there wouldn’t be any losers in the new plan, only “winners and bigger winners.” He also said the plan would give districts flexibility. “We’re no going to nickel and dime districts.”

He also warned that his plan isn’t the solution to school funding woes. “Even being successful at this is only going to begin to fill the need.”

College funding maneuvers

Two bills of interest to higher education advanced on the House and Senate floors Friday morning.

The House gave preliminary approval to an amended version of House Bill 13-1144, a Democratic bill that originally proposed merely to permanently impose a sales and use tax on cigarettes. (Smokes used to be exempt from sales taxes, but that exemption was temporarily repealed to raise revenue during the recent state budget crisis.

The amended version, pushed by House Republicans, would continue the tax permanently but divert all the revenue $28 million a year, to higher education.

Over in the Senate, Senate Bill 13-090, received preliminary approval. The measure contains a $9.3 million “bonus” for college and university budgets in the current, 2012-13 budget year. The Hickenlooper administration and the Department of Higher Education didn’t ask for the increase, but several state colleges successfully lobbied the Joint Budget Committee to give them a little extra cash.