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State of state speech

Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers the 2014 state of the speech, flanked by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (left) and Senate President Morgan Carroll.


Hickenlooper backs enrollment count, transparency proposals

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s annual state of the state speech endorsed proposals to change how school enrollment is counted and to create greater transparency for school spending.

Speaking Thursday to a joint session of the House and Senate, the governor also asked members to “please join me in supporting our request for an additional $100 million for higher education, which would cap tuition increases at 6 percent and put college within the reach of many families.”

Lawmakers of both parties already have been discussing enrollment and transparency proposals and the higher education funding boost first surfaced in the governor’s 2014-15 budget plan, unveiled last November. But Democratic legislators have taken up the higher education idea as their own and on Wednesday introduced a measure, Senate Bill 14-001, that contains the extra funding and the lid on tuition increases.

No bills have yet been introduced on changing the state’s current single-day student count to an average daily membership system, nor on the issue of district and school financial transparency.

Both were part of an omnibus measure, Senate Bill 13-213, which was passed last year but didn’t go into effect because voters in November rejected the $1 billion tax increase needed to pay for the bill.

Some lawmakers interested in enrollment and transparency bills believe they can be implemented with one-time spending out of the State Education Fund. But school district lobbyists are likely to be skeptical of such proposals, given that their stated 2014 goal is to put as much funding as possible back into district operating budgets rather than new programs.

Education took up less than two minutes of Hickenlooper’s speech of nearly 45 minutes. Given the brevity, here’s the full text of what he said as he moved from highway issues into education:

But the single most important investment we can make in infrastructure is in our bridges to tomorrow – our children. We must support effective teachers, students and parents. We must find a way to address key reforms that have already made Colorado a national model. Colorado voters made clear they will not make new investments in education until they are convinced that current resources are being prudently managed. We are going to request that the General Assembly fund a plan to make the budget of every public school transparent. Let’s put the numbers on the internet and make the web a window. Under the current statewide public education funding system, a school’s funding is based on an enrollment which is counted on a single day, early in the school year. We are going ask the General Assembly to pass legislation that will ensure a more accurate assessment, by counting average-daily-membership in our schools. It is nonsense not to have a powerful economic incentive to have everyone focused on student retention. While we are choosing to adhere to the prudent budgetary strategy that has been the cornerstone of our policy, this year we are seeking an increase in per-pupil funding of $223, for a total of $400 per pupil over the last two years. We are also requesting a significant investment in higher education. In recent years, college tuition has been steadily increasing by a rate of double-digits. Please join me in supporting our request for an additional $100 million for higher education, which would cap tuition increases at 6 percent and put college within the reach of more families.

The most sustained applause came after the governor’s call for higher education funding. (Read Hickenlooper’s full speech here, courtesy of our partners at the Denver Business Journal.)
Preschool quality bill surfaces

An expected measure on preschool quality improvement was introduced Thursday as House Bill 14-1076.

The measure, developed by a legislature study panel that met over the summer, would create a grant program within the Department of Education. School districts could apply for grants they could use to improve preschool programs and to obtain quality ratings for those programs.

The bill is backed by the Hickenlooper administration and some early childhood advocacy groups. But it’s another measure that may be viewed skeptically by other education interests because it would tap into the State Education Fund. At this stage of the process the bill doesn’t include a price tag, but some estimates put the cost at more than $10 million for the two-year grant cycle.

The administration attempted to put money for such a program into the 2013-14 school funding bill, but last-ditch lobbying by districts killed that plan.

Joint Budget Committee jaws about BEST

Some lawmakers are fretting this year about the Building Excellent Schools Today construction grant program. For one thing, the program has about reached its cap on annual payments for major construction projects. For another, a state audit issued last October found fault with some of the program’s procedures (see story).

The Joint Budget Committee had a briefing on BEST issues Thursday afternoon, but members didn’t give any clear indication on how they might want to proceed on two key questions.

The first is whether the state should update the school building conditions inventory first done after the program was created in 2008. (The audit faulted BEST for not using the inventory as a priority list.) Committee staff analyst Craig Harper told members that creating a priority list this year could cost $2.7 million, and that doing a new inventory “turns out to be a fairly costly proposition.”

The second issue is Harper’s suggestion that the legislature assume greater oversight over BEST cash grants, which are used to fund small projects like roof repairs and new boilers. Program cash spending has varied year-to-year depending on how much extra money was available. Harper is suggesting that the legislature set an annual cap on cash grants. “I’m simply recommending that you set a total for the grant program, just like you do for every other grant program I’m aware of.”

Harper also noted that “it would be safe to say there would be concerns” about greater legislative oversight among some education interest groups. (Read Harper’s briefing paper on BEST issues.)

The panel is scheduled to discuss possible bills it wants to introduce next Wednesday.