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School finance bill has temporary hole

The just-introduced 2013-14 school funding bill is missing a key element – the amount by which K-12 support would increase next year.

That number is expected to surface Thursday afternoon when the Senate Education Committee convenes to consider Senate Bill 13-260.

Since the bill was introduced late Tuesday, lawmakers, legislative staffers and others have been working to calculate just how much money might be available for extra school spending, taking into account the amount of spending in the main budget bill, spending proposed in other bills, requirements for state reserves and other factors.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Sen. Evie Hudak on Wednesday. The Westminster Democrat is chair of the Senate Education Committee and a prime sponsor of the finance bill.

A key question for school districts is how much SB 13-260 will reduce the “negative factor,” the formula that the legislature has used in recent tight-budget years to reduce school funding to an amount the state could afford. It’s estimated the negative factor has cut school spending by more than $1 billion below what it would have been otherwise. There’s speculation that proposed reduction of the negative factor will amount to about $30 million.

Under the state’s somewhat cumbersome system for financing schools, base school funding is included in the main state budget bill (Senate Bill 13-230 this year) while operating increases and spending for special programs are contained in the school finance bill.

An incomplete version of SB 13-260 was introduced so the bill could be placed on the calendar. As it is, the bill probably won’t clear the Senate until next week, leaving only a couple of weeks for House consideration and reconciliation of any amendments before lawmakers have to adjourn May 8.

Around the Capitol, the bill has been nicknamed “classic school finance,” in order to distinguish it from Senate Bill 13-213, a measure that proposes a massive overhaul of the school funding system and which wouldn’t go into effect until 2015-16.

Other proposals in the bill

Other elements are of next year’s bill are somewhat clearer, and here’s a rundown of some of what SB 13-260 proposes.

• Creation of 3,200 more openings in the Colorado Preschool Program, which covers at-risk students. Current enrollment is about 23,360. Districts could use the funding for half- or full-day slots or for full-day kindergarten. Gov. John Hickenlooper had proposed $23.9 million for this, but the money would have come out of district funding for general operating expenses. The bill also proposes additional funding for preschool quality improvement.

• A $20 million increase in funding for special education.

• An increase of $1 million on top of the $6 million that charter schools receive as partial reimbursement for facilities costs.

• Changes in the definition of “funded pupil,” including the requirement every district will receive funding for at least 50 pupils, even if they have lower enrollment. Only three rural districts are below that number: Campo (49), Pritchett (47) and Agate (10). Another district, Kim, currently has 51 students.

• Allocation of $200,000 for the State Council on Educator Effectiveness, which advises the Department of Education on implementation of the state’s principal and teacher evaluation law.

• Funding to hire an outside contractor to create a high-quality teacher recruitment program for rural districts. This is a revision of another Hickenlooper idea, which originally would have taken $3 million from other district funds.

• An allocation of $1.3 million to pay stipends for teachers who hold national board certifications. The program has existed for some time but hasn’t been funded in recent years.

• Spending of $16 million for implementation of the 2012 READ Act, which is intended to improve literacy among K-3 students.

The bill’s increases would be paid for out of the State Education Fund, a dedicated account used for school spending. That fund is expected to have about $1 billion after the current budget year closes on June 30, something that has attracted the interest of lawmakers interested in restoring some K-12 funding after four years of cuts. But there’s also counter-pressure to keep a healthy balance in the fund for use in future.

Bill dead but arguments live on

Members of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday sparred a bit over a bill that was killed by the House Education Committee on Monday.

At issue was the question of whether community colleges should be allowed to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in technical fields. The bill proposing that, Senate Bill 13-165, passed Senate Education and the full Senate but died this week in House Education (see story). The bill sparked a turf squabble between state universities and community colleges.

On Wednesday the Senate panel was considering Senate Bill 13-218, which proposes creation of a program under which state funds and corporate donations would be combined to pay for bachelor’s degree programs in technical fields. It’s sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who was a fierce opponent of SB 13-165. He argued his bill would accomplish the same thing as the dead bill.

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

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora and author of the community college degree bill, tried to amend Heath’s bill to include community colleges. Chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, ruled that out of order.Then Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, moved to replace Heath’s bill with the text of the community college bill. Hudak tossed that idea as well.

Heath’s unamended bill, which has a $500,000 price tag, was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 5-4 party-line vote.

The person on both sides of the issue was Metro State President Steve Jordan. He previously was the only university president to support the community colleges bill, and on Wednesday he testified in support of Heath’s proposal.

GOP senators oppose confidentiality of evaluations

The other item of Wednesday business for Senate Education was House Bill 13-1220, which would require that individual principal and teacher evaluations be kept confidential.

The measure moved through the House without controversy, but Republican members of Senate Education argued that parents ought to have access to teacher evaluations.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argued that taxpayers should have access to such information. “They deserve it, they paid for it.”

Committee Democrats prevailed in the 5-4 vote to advance the bill without amendment.

Waiting for licensing bill

Despite hints that it might show up at the beginning of the week, there was no sign of Sen. Mike Johnston’s expected teacher licensing bill as the week passed its midpoint on Wednesday.

The measure is expected to propose elimination of most current state regulations for teacher prep programs, make it possible for people who have college degrees and who can pass a content knowledge test to obtain “transitional” teaching licenses, create master licenses for highly effective educators and set up a new appointed board to advise the Department of Education on licensing.

Word has it that the bill will be the one big bipartisan education measure of the session, with GOP Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock signing on with Johnston, a Denver Democrat, and Sen. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

Over at the State Board of Education, meeting Wednesday across the street from the Capitol, at least one member wasn’t happy at the prospect.

“It’s very premature and shortsighted to do it this year,” said member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction, who thinks it’s too late in the legislative session for such a major bill.Neal also was unhappy with House Bill 13-1006, which would require schools with at least 80 percent at-risk students to serve free breakfast to all students after the school day starts. Neal, and a fair number of superintendents, thinks the bill impinges on local control.

Neal moved to put the board on record opposing the bill, but that failed on a 3-4 vote.

SBE chair Paul Lundeen of Monument said he didn’t think it was politic to oppose a bill that has a lot of legislative support.

Influence with the legislature – or lack thereof – is a perennial sore point for the SBE’s seven members. “I haven’t felt that the legislature has cared a whole lot about how we feel over here,” Neal said.

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