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Breakfast bill sparks lively fight

Updated 10:40 a.m. April 19 – The Senate Friday voted 20-15 to pass House Bill 13-1006, the breakfast after the bell proposal. Because the Senate didn’t amend the bill, it goes to the governor.

Senators, most eating dinner at their desks in the Senate chamber, had a lively fight Thursday evening over whether school kids should eat breakfast at their desks in classrooms.

After just an hour of debate, senators did give preliminary approval to the breakfast after the bell proposal, House Bill 13-1006.

The measure is intended to provide universal free breakfast at certain high-poverty schools in an effort to ensure students start the day ready to learn. The bill requires breakfast be served after school starts and also stipulates that participating schools serve breakfast to all students, not just those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.

Republican critics of the bill argued that it imposes an unnecessary burden on some school districts and isn’t needed given existing meal programs in schools.

“It’s really a great program, and I could go on and on, but people seem a bit antsy,” said prime sponsor Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, in urging its passage. Senators, back to work at 5 p.m. for the second floor session of the day, were milling around and chatting.

The debate quickly became more focused as Republicans went to the podium to raise questions.

“There has been considerable concern about the impact of this bill as questions about the true effectiveness,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.

She was referring to concerns raised by some school districts during committee hearings that the bill actually would cost them money despite federal reimbursements.

“It was overwhelming, the number of people opposing this,” said Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa.

After Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, spoke about childhood hunger in Colorado, Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, took exception. “It sounds like we’re a third world country here in the state of Colorado.” Marble said – more than once – that childhood obesity is a bigger problem than hunger.

In its first year, 2014-15, the bill will apply only to schools with 80 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. The percentage drops to 70 percent in 2015-16. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students (just over 100) wouldn’t have to participate, there’s flexibility for schools that already have formal before-school programs and also serve breakfast and for districts where 90 percent or more of students ride the bus.

The bill also has provisions allowing schools to drop out if their enrollment dips below the 70 percent threshold or if federal funding is eliminated. It’s estimated that participating schools will gain an additional $28 million in federal money by using the program.

The bill faces a final roll call vote before going to the governor. (The Senate has amended the House version.) The bill passed the House last month on a 49-16 vote.

Read a legislative staff summary of bill here.

BEST oversight bill passes

The Senate Thursday Thursday voted 35-0 to pass the bill that gives a legislative committee oversight of the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction and renovation program.

The program, funded by revenues from state school lands, provides matching funds for lease-purchase agreements that pay for new schools and other large projects. It also provides cash grants for smaller renovation needs.

Currently, grants are recommended by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board and approved by the State Board of Education.

Senate Bill 13-214 would give final up-or-down review of lease-purchase projects to the legislature’s Capital Development Committee, require the BEST board to maintain an annual reserve sufficient to cover its annual payments (something it’s been doing informally) and add some modest income and project reporting requirements.

The Senate earlier added an amendment to clarify uncertainty about what would happen if the State Board of Education and the Capital Development Committee can’t reach agreement on a final project list.

As amended, the bill allows the committee to reject individual projects only if the panel determines those items would “unreasonably increase” the cost of the total project list.

During the 2012 session some legislators talked about “reining in” BEST. They were worried that the program was diverting too much money from the school lands permanent fund and that the general fund might be liable for BEST debts if land income declined. The chatter didn’t translate into legislation, and BEST concerns seemed to cool over the months before the 2013 session.

SB 13-214 is seen by many as merely tweaking program procedures as a way to ease legislative concerns.

Evaluations confidentiality bill goes to House

The Senate also voted 24-11 to pass House Bill 13-1220, which requires that information about individual teacher and principal evaluations be confidential.

Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, suggested that parents perhaps ought to have access to individual teacher evaluations, but he didn’t proposed an amendment to that effect.

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