splitting the pie

Charter school funding debate takes center stage at Senate Education Committee

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Students at University Prep, a Denver charter school, enter the building in 2013.

Parents, activists and school board members from across Colorado spent hours Thursday arguing for and against a bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools.

Members of Senate Education Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 61, sponsored by state Sens. Owen Hill, a Republican, and Angela Williams, a Democrat.

But the Republican-controlled committee could vote on the legislation as soon as next week.

Supporters of the bill testified that their students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year. Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing.

“Without question, their needs are great,” said Terry Cory Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters for the state.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides..

Under the bill, charters would get a share of such tax increases —both those approved by voters in the past and any that win approval on future ballots.

“This bill is an assault on the local control of school boards who know what is best for their students, schools and communities,” said Joyce Brooks, education chair of the Denver NAACP.

Co-sponsor Hill had a family emergency and left the meeting before testimony ended, prompting the delay on the vote. The bill is expected to win Senate approval but its future is uncertain in the Democratic-controlled House.

School districts increasingly have turned to mill levy overrides as the state has failed to close a school funding shortfall. School districts are required to consult charter schools before asking taxpayers for more money, but they aren’t required to fund them and charters in most districts have historically only seen a marginal amount of any new revenue.

According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, only 11 of the state’s 178 school districts equally share their local tax increases. Such increases must be used for specific programs such as teacher training or tutoring that are spelled out in the ballot requests.

Under the bill, school districts across Colorado would need to reallocate a total of about $95 million to charter schools. Lawmakers also would need to find up to $13 million for charter schools authorized by the state through the Charter School Institute, according to a legislative report.

Such a drastic reallocation would wreak havoc on school district’s budgets, school board members said at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a one-size-fits-all that favors a few at the expense of many,” said Linda Van Matre, a board member for the Academy 20 School District in Colorado Springs.

But charter school parents told the committee that their children deserved an equal footing.

“I voted for my child in 1999 to get my tax dollars,” said Sonya Camarco, who also sits on her child’s Monument charter school board. “And to this day, they don’t.”

life support

Partisan bickering puts financial lifeline for rural schools in danger

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that would send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado’s rural schools faces an uncertain future after party leaders in both legislative chambers Thursday accused each other of not negotiating in good faith.

The multifaceted bill is one of the most complicated of the session. It would send money to rural hospitals, roads and schools. But if lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, hospitals would face severe cuts — forcing some in rural areas to close altogether.

What makes Senate Bill 267 so controversial is that the cornerstone of the bill would redesignate a fee collected by the state that helps pay for Medicaid.

The money the state collects from hospital patients is funneled to the state’s general operating budget. The state’s constitution limits how much that pot of money can grow each year. The bill would redirect the hospital fee to an enterprise account that isn’t subject to that constitutional provision.

Democrats have wanted to redesignate the hospital fee since 2015. They believe reclassifying the fee would elevate some budgetary pressures that have forced schools and other state services to be underfunded. Republicans have staunchly opposed the change. They’ve said it would violate the constitution and the will of voters.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, changed his mind this year after seeing the potential cuts to rural hospitals. He introduced the bill with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, and state Reps. K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.

The bill was always a long shot. There are plenty of provisions neither chamber liked. And it would potentially take a coalition of both parties to pass the bill

But a disagreement over whether the state should lower its spending gap in tandem with redesignating the fee has thrown negotiations into further peril.

Early Thursday, Sonnenberg told reporters he was done negotiating with Democrats. He signaled he would kill the bill that was scheduled for a second hearing later in the morning. While he backed away from his threat, he took shots at Democrats.

“We didn’t kill it,” he told Chalkbeat after sparing the bill. “I’m not ready to give up. But I’m close.”

Sonnenberg said he believes he’s given Democrats more than he should, increasing the amount he’d cap government spending at. But that hasn’t been enough for them, he said.
“I want to save hospitals,” he said. “They want more tax dollars.”

Democrats said they’re concerned the bill as written would trigger another round of budget cuts to all government services, including schools

“It puts our budget in problem territory in no time at all,” said Becker, the Boulder Democrat.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

House Democrats said they’re hoping to restart negotiations soon and will offer “creative solutions.”

Senate Bill 267 is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

“We are still holding out hope for rural schools,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural Alliance, which represents the state’s rural schools. “We’re grateful to Sen. Sonnenberg and the bill’s other sponsors for their leadership and efforts to bring critical resources to rural communities.”

Show me the money

Why a key piece of legislation to fund Colorado schools is on hold

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Funding for Colorado’s schools is caught in the political crosshairs at the statehouse with only 23 days left for lawmakers to complete their work this year.

Republican leaders of the state Senate called on House Democrats Monday to finish their work on the budget so the legislature can move on to flushing out specifics on how much money each of the state’s schools districts will receive.

But Democrats who control the House say they want to hold off on passing legislation needed to balance the budget while the Senate considers bills that could alleviate some financial pressure.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, is the sponsor of this year’s School Finance Act, an annual bill that sets how much each school district receives per pupil.

Hill said he won’t move forward with the school funding bill until the House is finished considering two pieces of legislation that must be passed to balance the state’s budget.

The state’s budget locks in funding for the education department but the annual school finance bill spells out how much each district receives.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” Hill told reporters Monday morning. “Constitutionally, we have to fund our schools. And we can’t do that until the House finishes up the package of the budget.”

GOP leaders admitted they could introduce the funding bill at any time. For example, last year’s bill was introduced at the same time as the state’s budget. But given the complexity of this year’s state budget, leaders said they want more certainty before introducing this year’s school finance bill.

“The numbers don’t mean anything until we balance the budget and I refuse to do that on the backs of our school districts,” Hill said.

This year’s budget calls for a modest increase in school funding. On average, schools will receive about $185 more per student than this year.

That doesn’t mean the bigger picture is bright for school funding, though. The state is already not fulfilling its obligations to fund schools, and the shortfall is projected to increase by about $45 million, to $881 million. That’s because the state doesn’t have enough money to cover all of its costs.

Hill said his funding bill could include more money for rural schools and resources to address the state’s teacher shortage.

House Democrats said they’re waiting for the Senate to take up two bills that could free up more money in this year’s state budget, including a bill that would send $400 million to rural schools.

“With a bill addressing the hospital provider fee working its way through the Senate, and multiple transportation funding measures in different stages of the legislative process, we need to ensure that the entire budget package brings our budget into balance,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “All of the bills have to work together, and we want to see how the bills currently in the Senate progress.”

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who is expected to co-sponsor the school funding bill, said it’s time to introduce the bill.

“We need to move forward,” she said. “There are a lot of balls in the air. And these bills are all intertwined. But I’m hopeful.”