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Fresh amendments tweak Success Act yet again

Taking only five minutes to vote, the Senate Finance Committee Thursday – without debate – undid some key amendments that had been tacked on to the Student Success Act by a different Senate panel.

As House Bill 14-1292 currently stands, it would take a $110 billion bite out of the state’s K-12 funding shortfall and maintain $20 million in funding for early literacy programs. The finance committee also approved an amendment that tinkers once again the bill’s controversial section on school district financial transparency.

It’s unclear how much the latest changes will finally cool the months-long running battle over the bill, this session’s top school finance measure. The overarching disagreement has been how much to spend on reducing the shortfall (what’s called the negative factor) and how much to spend on earmarked education programs.

A week ago in the Senate Education Committee a coalition of Democratic and Republican members pushed through amendments that took the negative factor reduction to $120 million, allocated only $10 million for early literacy and basically made transparency as a local district responsibility (see story).

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, was on the losing end of the amendments, but he managed to get the bill routed to Senate Finance, which he chairs and where he and two HB 14-1292 allies have a majority.

That raised concerns among bill critics, who had lobbied for the Senate Education amendments. But in the last week Johnston has negotiated with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and interest groups to come up with the new amendments approved by Senate Finance.

The key change is in the bill’s requirements for school and district financial transparency. An amendment last week eliminated the bill’s original requirement for a state-maintained website the public could use to find detailed spending reports for districts and schools. Instead, school districts would have been required to post financial information on their own websites.

An amendment in Senate Finance restored the website but cut its cost from $5 million to $3 million.

That may not end the debate, according to those following the negotiations. It’s possible an amendment will be offered in the Senate Appropriations Committee or on the floor that would require merely a study of what a transparency website actually would cost.

School districts have opposed the mandate, arguing that they already provide substantial financial information for the public and that a new system would impose costs and administrative burdens they don’t need.

The sponsors, Hickenlooper and education reform interest groups have pushed for more transparency, especially at the school level, and for common data reporting among districts.

HB 14-1292 also includes an increase in funding for charter school facilities costs and a small increase in funding for full-day kindergarten.