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Rural flexibility bill includes $10 million for small districts

School bus photo
Students leave Haskin Elementary in the San Luis Valley at the end of a school day and prepare to board their school bus. / File photo

Rep. Jim Wilson is continuing his crusade to relieve small rural districts of state regulatory burdens, and he wants to give them some extra money as well.

House Bill 15-1321, introduced late Monday by Wilson and Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, would exempt rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students from certain state requirements related to parent involvement, accountability committee membership, financial reporting, and evaluations of staff members with multiple job titles.

It also would provide $10 million in 2015-16 for per-pupil distribution to such districts and increase the ceiling on tax overrides the districts could ask from voters. (Get details in the bill text.)

For now, the bill’s on a fast track and will be heard by the House Education Committee Wednesday morning.

The regulatory burden on rural districts has been a cause for Wilson, a retired superintendent who spent his career in small districts. He started the effort last year with a bill that originally proposed wide regulatory relief for small rural districts. As finally passed, that bill allows districts that are in the two highest state accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years instead of annually.

Earlier this session Wilson introduced House Bill 15-1155, which includes some of the same provisions as the latest bill but which also proposes giving small rural districts flexibility in implementing school readiness and early literacy requirements. That idea makes some legislators and education reform lobbyists nervous.

Asked Tuesday if he’s going to let HB 15-1155 slide in favor of the new bill, Wilson said he’s holding the first measure “in his back pocket” while he sees what happens.

“I’m taking one step at a time.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

Some interest groups and other officials also have called for increased rural district funding. The state’s superintendents have urged lawmakers to provide $20 million for rural districts and $50 million for at-risk students on top of regular funding.

Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, is pushing House Bill 15-1201, which would create a $10 million grant program that boards of cooperative education services could use to help small districts share non-academic services like administration, technology, and transportation.

So there will be competition for the $25 million the Joint Budget Committee has set aside for any K-12 spending beyond the roughly $6 billion in basic school support in the main state budget bill.

The $25 million would come from the general fund, the state’s main account. While extra money is available in the separate State Education Fund, there’s not nearly enough there to pay for multiple rural initiatives, at-risk funding, reduction of the $880 million school funding shortfall, and other projects lawmakers are interested in.

The state includes 105 small rural districts, defined as having fewer than 1,000 students and being a certain distance from urban areas. Those districts enroll 35,151 students, so the proposed $10 million would amount to about $284 per student.

Another 45 districts are defined as rural but not small and have between 1,000 and 6,700 students each. They wouldn’t be covered by Wilson’s latest bill. Colorado has 178 districts.

See the full list of rural districts, small and otherwise, here.

Wilson and Petterson on Monday introduced another bill aimed at state education regulations. House Bill 15-1322 would require the Department of Education to hire an outside consultant to review data reporting requirements the state imposes on schools, with an eye to determining which mandates provide unnecessary data and which requirements impose burdens greater than any value they produce. (Read bill here.)

The measure also will be heard by House Education on Wednesday.

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