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Panel stumbles on finance reform plan

The Senate Education Committee, not so fresh after nine-and-a-half hours of public testimony Tuesday night, the next day struggled through a long list of amendments to the proposed school finance overhaul but put off a vote until Thursday.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster

Wednesday morning’s three-hour meeting on Senate Bill 13-213 was a stop-and-go affair marked by the chair’s attempts to speed things up and slowdowns caused by member confusion over the flurry of amendments.

The bill, pushed by Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rollie Heath of Boulder, is considered the most significant education legislation of the 2013 session. But it has run into heavy turbulence, and statehouse observers are hard pressed to predict the outcome of the debate.

The measure also is facing tight time constraints. Johnston and Heath had hoped for preliminary Senate floor debate no later than Monday, before consideration of the annual state budget bill dominates Senate and House deliberations for several days. After that, Johnston will be out of the Capitol for personal reasons. So there’s pressure to move the bill so that the House will have enough time for consideration, given that the legislature must adjourn by May 8.

Key elements of Senate Bill 13-213 include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates and some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs. The system wouldn’t go into effect unless a statewide ballot measure to raise taxes is passed.

Although Johnston has been shopping his ideas to scores of education groups for more than a year, the bill currently seems to have more critics than friends, both in the General Assembly and among education interest groups.

  • Districts both large and small think the plan doesn’t provide them enough additional funding while districts like Denver and Aurora would get big boosts.
  • Another group of smaller districts with special financial profiles think the bill actually hurts them.
  • Charter school supporters think the bill doesn’t do enough for them; district interests feel the bill places too many restrictions on their dealings with charters.
  • Some education reform groups say the bill doesn’t provide true “backpack” funding that follows students to schools; districts think Johnston has gone too far in that direction.
  • Supporters of education adequacy think Johnston hasn’t done enough to determine what an “adequate education” actually should cost.

And lots of people think the bill is being pushed too fast, despite Johnston’s months of briefings and the fact that drafts of the measure have been available for a month.

Several amendments proposed Wednesday touched on those issues. By EdNews’ count, 19 amendments were proposed, with seven passed, 11 defeated and two withdrawn. (One of the defeated amendments was passed but defeated later on reconsideration.)

Sens. Mike Johnston and Rollie Heath confer during earlier SB 13-213 committee debate.
Sens. Mike Johnston and Rollie Heath confer during Senate Bill 13-213 debate.

Johnston won passage of his amendment to provide continued current state funding to districts with high property values but low taxes, a benefit to about two-dozen districts. But he lost an amendment to create a minimum per-pupil funding “floor” for other districts at the low end of his plan.

Committee Chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, proposed five amendments, most intended to trim some of Johnston’s innovation ideas. All lost.

Republican amendments to increase funding for charters also were defeated. Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, proposed a sweeping amendment to keep much of the state funding system as it is now, something that would have benefited some larger suburban districts that don’t gain much under Johnston’s plan. Johnston objected, and Scheffel withdrew the idea.

The amending process was chaotic, with members presenting their ideas but then having to wait for votes because someone was temporarily out of the hearing room. At times members seemed unsure what they were voting on, and on several roll calls some members “passed,” meaning the committee aide had to call their names a second time a moment later to get a vote.

Johnston (center) huddles with Sens. Mark Scheffel (left) and Owen Hill after a vote went in an unexpected direction.
Johnston (center) huddles with Sens. Mark Scheffel (left) and Owen Hill after a vote went in an unexpected direction.

On one vote Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado, tried to pass twice. He made a remark about not having knocked on 30,000 doors to flip a coin. “Give it your best shot,” snapped Hudak, who added she had a coin.

The meeting started about 10:15 a.m. Hudak noted that they had to be done by 1:30 p.m. and said, “I would encourage us to keep our discussion on amendments to a minimum” and that amendments not handled Wednesday would have to be offered on the floor later.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, objected, saying, “This is appalling and disrespectful of the process.” It took a few words from legislative staffers about the chair’s powers to calm that tiff down.

“We have to end at 1:30 … and this bill has to be done today,” Hudak said. “Let’s just starting working the amendments, let’s see what happens,” Johnston replied.

“I’d urge all of us to take a breath,” said Scheffel. “We’ve got to do it right.”

Later, as the clock ticked toward 1:30 p.m., Hudak asked her colleagues, “Are you ready to vote on the amendment and the bill in two minutes?” (The 1:30 p.m. end was necessary because other committees were starting up at that time.)

The committee wasn’t, and Hudak was persuaded to recess until 3:30 p.m.

There apparently were other discussions during that two-hour period. When Hudak and two other members returned at 3:30 p.m., she took less than 30 seconds to announce that the bill was being laid over until the committee’s regular 1:30 p.m. meeting on Thursday.

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