Who Is In Charge

Panel kicks off higher ed flex debate

The Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission Wednesday came up with some additions to the 2010 legislature’s already heavy burden of financial issues.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (left) and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, at the final meeting of Longterm Fiscal Stability Commission on Nov. 4, 2009.
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (left) and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, at the final meeting of Longterm Fiscal Stability Commission on Nov. 4, 2009.

The commission recommended measures to give state colleges and universities more financial flexibility (but not power to set tuition), create a commission to study the fiscal provisions of the state constitution, establish a state rainy day fund and launch an outside examination of state and local taxes.

The 16-member, ideologically diverse panel was created by the 2009 legislature to examine the state’s long-term fiscal condition. The bills and resolutions it recommended at its final meeting Wednesday are subject to review by the Legislative Council, which meets next week.

Given the budget crisis facing higher education, the issue of financial flexibility for colleges and universities has been expected to be on lawmakers’ 2010 agenda.

The bill proposed by the commission may provide an initial frame for that discussion, but it’s impossible to discern now the direction the debate will take. Legislation to give institutions more flexibility failed during the 2009 session.

The original draft of the bill recommended Wednesday was developed by Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and a group of college presidents he met with recently.

“Obviously there are many other perspectives” to be heard on the issue, Morse said. “This is really the first cut at it.” He predicted that the text of the bill would be changed completely once it starts through the legislative process next year.

“The one section you will not see in the bill is tuition flexibility … the governor at this point would not permit a bill to become law that had tuition flexibility in it,” Morse explained.

Annual tuition increases now are controlled by ceilings the legislature sets. Given the steady decline in tax support for colleges and universities, many college presidents have argued that individual colleges should be able to control their own charges and financial aid, which would allow them to raise more revenue through tuition hikes and then offset the higher costs for needy students with financial aid.

Gov. Bill Ritter has said no major changes should be made in tuition policy until participants in a higher ed strategic plan have studied the issue. That process is due to kick off shortly.

After some occasionally snippy back and forth between Morse and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, about what should be in the recommended bill, the panel unanimously approved a version that would:

  • Require the higher ed system to come up with common requirements for five degree programs by 2011, with additional coordination of degrees after that.
  • Allow some institutions to enroll unlimited numbers of foreign students separate from their ratios of in-state and out-of-state students.
  • Give schools the power to set their own financial aid eligibility policies.
  • Exempt colleges from state financial and information-technology rules.
  • Reduce the amount of financial data colleges have to report to the state and give colleges greater control over their own construction projects.

Dropped from the bill were provisions allowing universities to exempt new employees from state personnel rules, make it easier for retired college and university staff to return to work without affecting their PERA pensions and that would ease the rules on colleges hiring their own lawyers rather than using the attorney general’s office. Those were the subject of the Morse-Gerou debate.

Text of the proposed bill (sections 8-10, 12 and 14-16 were dropped).

After all the back and forth, commission member Cris White, COO of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, quipped, “Politics in action is a fascinating thing to watch.”

Several members, both legislators and citizens, expressed disappointment that tuition policy was off the table.

The commission had an equally lively debate over the proposal by panel chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, to create a special commission that would study and possibly propose changes in the financial provisions of the state constitution.

The complex process first would require the 2010 legislature, by a two-thirds vote, to propose the plan to voters in November 2010. The ballot proposal would create a 19-member commission with the power to study and recommend changes in financial constitutional requirements. The body would be exempt from the single-subject rule that limits the scope of ballot measures.

If the voters approve the idea, the 19-member bipartisan panel would be appointed by legislative leaders, the governor and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The commission’s proposal would be subject to legislative review in 2012 and go to the voters in November 2012. Lawmakers would make a recommendation on the plan but couldn’t prevent it from being placed on the ballot, nor would the commission be obligated to accept the legislature’s recommendations.

After a lengthy discussion of constitutional issues – conservative members opposed creating a third way to place amendments on the ballot – the panel passed the proposal 4-2, with majority Democrats supporting and Republicans voting no. (Text)

The third major proposal made by the committee would create a state rainy day fund equaling 15 percent of the general fund. The panel voted 5-1 to approve a version by Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, that would take considerably longer to reach 15 percent than would have an alternative proposal by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray. That was rejected 2-4.

The committee also unanimously proposed conducting a study of the state and local tax system. Also a Heath idea, the privately funded study would be done by University of Denver experts.

Otherwise, the four commission Democratic legislators killed a Gerou proposal to extend for another five years a five-year funding program for highways and state buildings that was established by the 2009 legislature.

And the committee approved a proposed bill that would make it easier for state agencies to contract with non-profit groups as a way to provide less-expensive state services.

Before the formal vote on each measure, the non-legislator members of the panel were asked informally how they would vote on each bill. (Only the six legislative members were allowed to vote formally.) In most cases the majority sentiment of the non-legislators agreed with the formal vote tallies, although it did make for a long, talky day.

The Legislative Council, the administrative panel composed of legislative leaders and some other lawmakers, meets next Tuesday to consider the bills proposed by all 2009 interim committees. The council can reject a bill if it concludes the proposal went beyond a particular interim committee’s assignment.

The commission’s proposal are expected to become part of the larger – and difficult – debates the 2010 legislature will face over cutting the state budget to meet revenue shortfalls, protecting higher education from further cuts, reducing state K-12 aid and shoring up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

Do your homework

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.