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Funding bill passes with surprise

Updated 10 a.m. April 19 – The Senate on Friday voted 23-12 to pass Senate Bill 13-260, the 2013-14 school funding bill.

The Senate debated the bill and gave preliminary approval Thursday evening, but only after Republicans and Democrats combined to strip $5 million in preschool quality improvement funding and shift the money to general school spending.

The measure, Senate Bill 13-260, is this year’s version of the annual school finance act, which is necessary to set the level of state and local funding for the next school year.

As approved in committee, the measure proposed some $5.5 billion in total program funding, the combination of state and local money used to pay basic school operating costs. That’s an increase of about $200 million over this year’s level.

The original version of the bill also reduced by $35 million any growth in the $1 billion shortfall in education funding that’s developed over the last four years because of state budget cuts. (This was caused by what’s commonly called the “negative factor.”)

Floor debate was fairly routine and the amendments were pretty technical until Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, proposed his amendment to take $5 million away from a new program proposed in the bill.

That initiative, called the Expanding Quality Incentive Program, would create a $5 million grant program in the Department of Education to which school districts could apply for money to seek quality ratings and also to improve program quality. That program, plus a 3,200-student increase in state-funded preschool slots, are key parts of the bill and were included partly in response to the wishes of the Hickenlooper administration.

Hill proposed putting the $5 million into basic school funding, reducing growth in the negative factor by $40 million. (In fairness, there’s some disagreement about how much the bill actually reduces the negative factor, but that’s a highly technical discussion.)

A Democrat, Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora quickly arose to agree with Hill’s idea. No school district requested the quality program, she said. “What they asked is ‘Please decrease the negative factor. … We don’t need more new programs.’”

The amendment passed on a standing vote, with some other Democrats joining Todd and the Republicans in voting yes.

Prime sponsor Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said she was surprised by the amendment and seemed upset. “The school districts must have lobbied behind my back.”

Lobbyists representing teachers, administrators and several districts worked behind the scenes to convince a majority of senators to strip the preschool quality funding from the bill.

Other important provisions of the bill would increase special education funding by $20 million, increase charter school facilities funding to $7 million from $6 million, create a recruitment program for rural teachers and provide $16 million for implementation of the READ Act, the early literacy improvement program created last year.

Other than Hill’s, GOP amendments didn’t get far on Thursday. Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, lost proposals to both change the enrollment counting system and to add $5 million in funding for gifted and talented students.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, tried to remind senators that the source of much of bill’s spending, the State Education Fund, can only be tapped so much. He said the bill already spends about $11 million more from the SEF than he would have liked. (Steadman is a prime sponsor of the bill and also chair of the Joint Budget Committee.)

“I would really encourage us not to go any further” in spending from the fund,” he said.

After preliminary consideration is finished, senators can try to overturn amendments that were passed. Steadman and Hudak didn’t try to overturn the $5 million switch. Asked if she would work with House members to return the bill to its original form, Hudak said, “I don’t know.”

Speaking of school finance

Another school finance bill, Senate Bill 13-213, was scheduled to be debated in the House Friday but instead won’t be considered until next Monday, EdNews has learned. The proposal proposes a total overhaul of the school finance system, pending voter approval of a tax increase to pay for it.

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