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Senators patch up differences, unanimously pass school funding bill with charter compromise

Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs
Denver Post

The Senate Friday evening voted 33-0 for a school finance bill that contains some provisions charter school advocates have been seeking through a different bill.

The vote came less than 24 hours after a tense debate over the finance bill and charters. That fight ended when members of both parties overwhelmingly defeated a surprise compromise plan proposed by Senate Republican leaders and Joint Budget Committee members.

The latest version of House Bill 16-1422 doesn’t contain what charters wanted most – a requirement that school districts share some local revenue with charters on a per-pupil basis.

That proposal remains alive in a separate measure, Senate Bill 16-188, which will be heard by the House Education Committee Monday. It likely will be defeated.

Sen. Mike Johnston, who proposed a key amendment during preliminary debate Thursday, said, “I think we got people to a pretty good place.” The Denver Democrat said the compromise gives charters some of what they want without the revenue-sharing requirement that sparked opposition.

Sen. Owen Hill, the sponsor of the two charter bills, clearly wasn’t enthusiastic about the compromise but said he’d probably achieved as much as he could.

Lawmaker differences came to a boil late Thursday when senators finally took up the state’s annual school funding bill after a number of false starts.

In a startling rebuke to the Senate’s leaders, lawmakers rejected a plan that sought to break a looming deadlock over charter school revenue sharing by inserting compromise language on the charter issue into the main funding bill.

The amendment would have required district sharing of most district override revenues with charters, but it would have applied only to overrides approved after Jan. 1, 2017. Tax overrides are extra revenue that districts can raise with voter approval.

Like each year’s school finance act, the purpose of House Bill 16-1422 is simple – it sets K-12 funding for the next school year.

This bill proposes $6.4 billion total school funding, a $156.3 million increase. Average per-pupil funding would be $7,425, up $112.

The negative factor — a calculation the legislature has used for years to reduce school funding to balance the state budget —would be held steady at $831 million.

But this year’s bill has become complicated by divisions over the two controversial charter bills — and by concerns about 10 small rural districts facing a financial squeeze.

Senate bill sponsors Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, and Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican, pushed an amendment Thursday night that would have inserted into the bill that watered-down provisions about sharing district tax override revenues with charters. Senate President Bill Cadman and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel backed the compromise.

The most significant of the two bills would require school districts to share local tax overrides with their charter schools. The Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure Tuesday.

The plan to tackle the charter issue as part of the annual school finance bill debate was sprung on the Senate without notice, angering many members.

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was livid about the Thursday night surprise. “This is shameful. … Now we have this literally at the 11th hour and they [amendment sponsors] won’t even come down and explain what they’re trying to accomplish. … It’s a $6.4 billion bill and no one will explain what we’re doing here.”

Lambert was blunt about the House prospects for the charter measures. “If you look at a crystal ball those won’t be very successful.” He argued an amended school finance bill might pass, giving charters something.

After much wrangling, the rank and file from both parties and both sides of the charter debate defeated the leadership’s amendment on a standing vote, meaning the vote tallies weren’t recorded.

The key amendment of the night turned out to be the change proposed by Johnston, which basically inserted several sections of one charter measure, Senate Bill 16-187, into the finance act. Those provisions include streamlining of charter audit requirements, notification to charters about vacant district buildings, more detailed accounting of district services to charters and rules for allocation of some special state and federal funding to charters.

Another, non-charter amendment also passed Thursday. It affects 10 small rural districts that are squeezed because of big drops in local revenue caused by declines in energy production. The state backfills the loss of local revenue, but not completely because of the negative factor. The amendment would give those districts grants to cover half of the money they’re losing. The original version of the bill offered those districts loans that had to be paid back.

After 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, proposed another amendment that would have shifted funding from nine big districts – like Boulder, Denver, Douglas County and Jefferson County – and redistributed it mostly to poorer districts.

“I know we’re tired. I’m tired. I’m even more tired of hearing about how we can’t do anything for low-income students.”

While inequity of state school funding is a growing policy concern, the proposal came late in deliberations and was rejected.

Whatever the outcome of the charter dispute, lawmakers will have to pass a school funding bill. That’s because the measure contains the base per-pupil funding amount and negative factor information needed by the Department of Education to calculate each district’s funding in the upcoming year.

If the House doesn’t accept the Senate amendments, the final shape of the bill will be determined in a House-Senate conference committee, which likely will be dominated by members of the Joint Budget Committee. Four of that panel’s six members are the prime sponsors of HB 16-1422.

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