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House panel rejects bill to halt school breakfast expansion

The House Education Committee Monday killed a bill that would have stopped expansion of the breakfast after the bell program to additional schools and students.

Committee Democrats provided the majority in the 6-5 vote to indefinitely postpone House Bill 15-1080. Representatives of health advocacy groups opposed the bill, while school district witnesses supported it. They said scheduled expansion of the program would impose financial burdens on districts that wouldn’t be covered by federal school meal reimbursements.

The bill’s chances were considered slim from the start, but House Education took nearly four hours and 45 minutes to hear testimony, ask questions and indulge in a few moments of parliamentary waffling before voting.

The program, mandated by the 2013 legislature, requires districts to provide free breakfasts after the school day starts to all students in schools where 80 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The law drops that threshold to 70 percent starting in the 2015-16 school year. The change will cover an estimated 72,000 students, although many of those students already receive school breakfasts before school starts.

HB 15-1080 proposed eliminating the switch to 70 percent. An analysis prepared by the Colorado Springs District 11 staff estimated that lowering the threshold to 70 percent could cost 17 districts more than $660,000 a year. District witnesses said that money could be better spent on classroom instruction.

The problem is that the federal government reimburses districts different amounts for full-pay students, reduced-price students and free-lunch students. But district meals cost the same for all students. So, districts argue, when a school has 30 percent full-pay students, it doesn’t get enough total federal reimbursement to cover the costs, forcing them to make up the difference with their own funds.

Beyond just providing food for students who might not get breakfast at home, the after the bell law is based on two assumptions. The first is that more students will eat breakfast if it’s offered after school starts, rather than before. The second is that serving free breakfast to all students, even those who could afford to pay, puts all students on an equal footing and eliminates the stigma some poor students might feel about getting a free meal.

Prior to the law, many districts offered free breakfasts before the school day started, and many continue to do that. The law is a favorite of many Democratic liberals in the House.

Several witnesses acknowledged that breakfast after the bell has attracted more students than participated in before-school meals.

Witnesses representing districts as diverse as Cherry Creek and Pueblo 60, Jefferson County, and Mapleton testified in favor of the bill. Several warned that unless the bill is passed, districts might be forced to use less-healthy prepared foods in order to save money.

Districts witnesses also said new federal requirements such as larger servings of fruit – without a corresponding increase in federal reimbursement – and rising milk prices have increased the financial pressure.

But in the end the Democratic committee majority wasn’t convinced. Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was particularly skeptical about district concerns. “Hearing all these numbers is kind of frustrating. … One child that is food deprived is one too many.”

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, sponsor of the original breakfast after the bell law, said he was open to developing a new bill in an effort to reach a compromise but offered no details. Joshi said he doubted a new bill was likely to be drafted and passed this session.

Elsewhere in the Capitol Monday afternoon, the Republican-controlled Senate State Affairs Committee killed two Democratic bills.

Senate Bill 15-033 would have earmarked surplus state revenues for full-day kindergarten, while Senate Bill 15-068 would have set an interest rate cap on some student loans and provided a tax deduction for student loan repayments.

Later in the week Republican bills on union membership and use of locker rooms by transgender persons are likely to be killed in a House committee. A Republican parents’ right bills may get out of the Senate Education Committee and even the full Senate, but it will have no chance in the House.

Such partisan votes on bills are a natural consequence of having split legislative control, and the phenomenon actually is welcomed by many interest groups because it tends to eliminate the more extreme bills from either end of the partisan spectrum.

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