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.”

Vision quest

Is Colorado’s school ‘vision bill’ going dark?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rangeview junior Coree Morgan works on an assignment in her electronics class.

A proposed overhaul of Colorado’s public schools has hit a legislative roadblock.

State Senate leadership has assigned a bill that would create a series of legislative committees to study and propose changes to Colorado’s education laws to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

That legislative panel is known for killing bills leadership opposes.

Sponsors of the House Bill 1287, which cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month with broad bipartisan support, argue Colorado’s education policies are a patchwork of reform efforts and outdated mandates. And given the state’s decentralized education system, the legislature needs to play a larger role in creating a clearer vision for what Colorado schools should look like in the 21st Century.

But Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he believes the bill is just setting up an argument to send more money to schools.

“It seems like their focus is proving a premise that more money is necessary,” Holbert said Monday. “And that’s just not a premise I’m comfortable in supporting.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, called Holbert’s objection shortsighted.

“It’s a dangerous viewpoint,” Rankin said. ”That’s not what this is.”

Rankin and his House co-sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, both serve on the legislative committee that writes the state’s budget. For years they’ve advocated for making changes to how the state funds schools.

One of the stated goals of the bill, Hamner and Rankin have said, is to create a unified vision for the state’s schools that could be sold to voters if it was determined a tax increase would be necessary.

Between the two, Rankin has been less bullish on the argument that schools need more money.

But the bill would also provide the state a chance to review and reconsider major education legislation that’s been enacted since 2008. That includes everything from new graduation requirements for high school students to teacher evaluations.

The state affairs committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

One of the members of the committee, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was a sponsor of the bill. But he dropped his support earlier this month.

He said he objected to the new bureaucratic structure the bill creates.

“A permanent new government program is not the right direction now,” he said, referring to the committees established in the bill.

Rankin, who called the bill one of the most important of his legislative career, said he’s holding out hope and would continue the conversation regardless.

“We don’t think strategically. It’s hard for most of the folks in the legislature to think way ahead,” Rankin said. “I realize it’s a heavy lift, and even if the bill does fail, we have to keep talking about it.”

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.”