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Student Success funding bill praised and panned

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (at podium) touts the proposed Student Success Act.
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (at podium) touts the proposed Student Success Act.

Legislative backers of the proposed Student Success Act formally unveiled their spending-and-reform plan at an upbeat Capitol news conference Thursday, even as skeptics ratcheted up criticism of the proposal.

While legislators at the news conference promoted the bill as a balance between more funding and reform, people attending a school boards conference a few blocks away applauded a protest song that called on lawmakers to do more to reduce the state’s school funding shortfall.

The yet-to-be-introduced bill proposes spending more than $300 million — part to reduce the $1 billion funding shortfall, some to help districts pay for implementation of reforms already on the books, and part for a list of earmarked programs. (Chalkbeat Colorado first reported the details of the bill in this story.)

Around the Capitol, the bill commonly is called the “Son of 213,” a reference to Senate Bill 13-213, the comprehensive, $1 billion overhaul of the state’s school funding system that remains on the shelf because voters last year rejected the tax increase necessary to pay for it. (Sponsors of the new bill hate that nickname.)

More than a dozen House members from both parties flanked Democratic Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver as he called the proposal a first step toward improved school funding and a continuation of education reform efforts.

“While not everyone is in full agreement, people have been heard,” Ferrandino said. “We are absolutely committed to working with all stakeholders.”

The bill’s three prime sponsors amplified the do-what-we-can and all-are-being-consulted themes.

Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, touted the bill as a “balanced approach.” Hamner added, “We will continue to reach out to all groups.” Hamner is chair of the House Education Committee and Murray is the senior Republican member.

“We’ve heard the districts, but we also have an interest in moving Colorado forward,” Hamner said.

Senate prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, picked up the same themes, saying, “We’re not going to get all of the way” toward restoring K-12 funding, but added, “Let us begin the process of trying to make this reinvestment.” (While Johnston is widely regarded by lobbyists and many educators as the animating force behind the bill, its sponsors are promoting Hamner and Murray as the key drivers and stress the bipartisan support for the bill, at least in the House. Johnston was the only senator at the news conference.)

Others raise concerns about bill

While supporters were touting the bill, others were significantly less enthusiastic.

As it happens, the Colorado Association of Schools board opened its annual legislative conference on the same day as the supporters’ news conference.

Those who attended a luncheon at the Brown Palace Hotel cheered a “protest” song written by Mark DeVoti, a superintendent who now works for CASB, that urged the legislature to devote more money to buying down the negative factor.

The negative factor is a formula used by the legislature to reduce school funding from what it otherwise would have been in order the balance the annual state budget. It’s estimated the negative factor has set school funding $1 billion below what it would have been otherwise.

The proposed Student Success bill would make only an $80 million dent in that $1 billion. School districts and superintendents are pushing to “buy down” the negative factor in 2014-15 by anywhere from $200 million to $275 million.

The chorus to DeVoti’s two-verse song goes:

Take that Negative Factor, make it go away!
Come on put that billion back
Do it with no string attached
Take that Negative Factor, make it go away

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s point person on education issues, was the featured speaker at the CASB luncheon. According to several people who attended the event, Garcia was peppered with lots of hard questions – and no softballs – about the negative factor and the Student Success bill. Attendees said Garcia held his own but that the session was tense.

Later in the day, CASB chief lobbyist Jane Urschel made an impassioned plea to members to lobby their legislators for reduction of the negative factor. “I cannot do this for you,” she said. “You have to talk to them. … I think they can do [reduce] $200 million in the negative factor and still do some other expenditures they want to do.”

In a reference to that fact that most CASB members come from small rural districts, Urschel said, “Get off your tractors” and come to Denver to lobby.

Two other influential mainline interest groups, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives, issued statements Thursday raising concerns about the Student Success Act.

“We appreciate that lawmakers allocated some money to help revive struggling districts, but the proposed $80 million is inadequate to schools and classrooms that lost more than $1 billion in just five years,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman in a prepared statement. “We also have great concern that the majority of the funding in the proposal comes with mandates on how to use, or is one-time money.”

CASE Executive Director Bruce Caughey also called for a larger cut in the negative factor.

Negative factor reduction carries future implications

A key – but complicated – issue in the negative factor debate is the impact on future state budgets if a significant amount of money is devoted to buying down the negative factor. Because the state constitution requires annual increases in base school funding based on inflation and enrollment growth, increasing base funding through reduction of the negative factor would mean even larger mandatory school funding in future years. People like Ferrandino and Hickenlooper budget advisors resist too big a cut in the negative factor for that reason.

A safety valve for school support is a dedicated account called the State Education Fund, which can be used to supplement school support from the state’s main General Fund. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed keeping a $700 million balance in the SEF at the end of 2014-15, thereby saving some money to spend on schools in future years. The spending proposed in the Student Success Act could leave as little as $200 million or as much as $400 million in the SEF.

Asked about that, Hickenlooper budget chief Henry Sobanet told Chalkbeat Colorado, “There are ideas in the legislature that total several hundred million dollars above our [budget] request. After the March forecast, we will work with the JBC and leadership on a budget package that predicted revenue can support.”

For now, the proposed spending in the Student Success bill is an educated guess and is expected to change after those state revenue forecasts are released at the end of Marcy.

“The March forecast will determine how much we can spend,” Ferrandino said.

Notably absent from the Student Success bill is any increased funding for full-day kindergarten and the Colorado Preschool Program, both favorites of education reformers. Depending on the March forecasts, Murray said additional funding for those programs could be included in the annual school finance bill, a separate piece of legislation. That would be “the icing on the cake,” she said.

New bill proposes other uses for BEST revenue

The Student Success bill proposes spending all $40 million generated by new marijuana taxes for kindergarten facilities, charter school facilities and school technology upgrades.

A bill introduced Wednesday proposes different uses.

House Bill 14-1287 proposes that the money go to the state capital construction fund without earmarking, according to prime sponsor Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley. But the main thrust of the bill is to help school districts affected by disasters such as last year’s wildfires and floods.

In the event of an officially declared disaster, the bill would require the Department of Education to contact affected school districts to inventory damage. Affected districts could apply to the Capital Construction Assistance Board for emergency aid, and the normal local matching requirements of the Building Excellent Schools Today program would be waived. The board could use up to 10 percent of the fund for emergency grants.

Asked about potential conflict with student success bill, Young smiled and said, “I think we’re going to have an interesting debate.” (Young was part of the supporting cast of lawmakers at the Student Success news conference.)

HB 14-1287 originated with a special legislature committee convened after last year’s disaster and has bipartisan sponsorship.

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