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Finance bill faces first House test

Read story on Monday committee action here.

The ambitious bid to remake Colorado’s school funding system faces its first House committee hearing Monday, with less than a month of the legislative session left to go.

Although significantly amended in the Senate, the measure is still being targeted for changes by a variety of education groups that remain dissatisfied with some provisions.

School district interests have concerns about some of the spending autonomy the bill would give to principals and want to shore up the funding “floor” set by the Senate. Charter schools and some allied business interests still aren’t happy with how the bill provides for charter finances.

There have been plenty of meetings, negotiations and lobbying since Senate Bill 13-213 passed the Senate on April 2. Education lobbyists were scurrying around the Capitol Friday, texting each other and huddling in informal meetings along the brass rails.

Tweaking the bill is essentially a zero-sum game, because its sponsors want to maintain total costs at about $1 billion. That figure is important because of a two-step process that is needed to make the measure a reality. If lawmakers pass the bill, voter approval of an income-tax increase would be required to trigger and fund the new system. None of the 24 ballot measures under consideration to fund the bill proposes more than about $1 billion in revenue.

Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo

Asked Friday about the bill’s prospects in the House, prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston said, “I’m optimistic.” The Denver Democrat, of course, is a perennial optimist, but his staff is working hard to control the negotiations over and drafting of amendments.

The other prime sponsors are Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. She’s chair of the House Education Committee, which will hear the bill starting at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chamber.

“I anticipate another rather long hearing,” lobbyist Jennifer Mello told her clients on the State Board of Education during a briefing last week. She said Senate amendments “have certainly improved the legislations chances for passage…but the bill still has a long way to go.”

The overall thrust of the bill is to fully fund preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten for all students, provide a substantial increase in financial support for at-risk students and English language learners, give districts more flexibility to raise revenue locally and to give principals more autonomy in spending some at-risk and ELL funding from the state.

The bill also would change how enrollment is counted, require more detailed financial reporting by schools and districts and mandate periodic studies of school funding and the effectiveness of the new funding system. The new system would roll out in 2015-16 – if a ballot measure goes to voters this November and if they pass it.

Significant changes were made in the Senate, where all 15 Republicans voted against the bill.

The state of the bill and what’s in play

Important elements of the Senate version include:

• A provision that prevents loss of funding for 24 districts that would have seen reductions under the original bill’s calculation of state and local shares.

• Creation of “floor” funding for another 31 districts – set at 95 percent of average statewide per-pupil support. These districts include several large suburban school systems, some of which felt the original bill slighted them to favor high-poverty districts like Denver and Aurora.

• A reduction in per-pupil aid from what the bill calls the Teaching and Leadership Investment fund, which is intended to help districts pay for implementation of recent reform mandates. The original bill proposed $600 per student; the amended bill contains $441.

• Addition of nearly $30 million for charter schools, but removal of provisions that charters wanted on sharing of district tax overrides and on special education.

• Increased special education funding of $80 million with guarantees of additional funding as revenues from the news taxes increase over time.

Bill provisions expected to be targeted by proposed amendments in the House include charter funding, principal autonomy in spending at-risk and ELL funds, how to handle funding for fast-growing districts and charters and use of the bill’s proposed Innovation Fund, which currently is intended for districts to use for extending school days and the school year. Finding acceptable compromises on charter funding is seen as essential for maintaining support for the bill among some parts of the business community.

Proposed tax measures also on deck

The 24 proposed ballot measure will be considered by the state Title Setting Review Board starting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Department of State offices, 1700 Broadway.

The board is a three-member group of state officials that determines whether a measure covers only a single subject and sets the titles that will appear on the ballot.

Ballot measure proponents file multiple proposals for various reasons, including having backups in case a version is challenged successfully. Only one school tax increase will be proposed to voters if backers decide to go ahead this year.

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